Tag: Olivia Colman

Empire of Light (2022)

Empire of Light (2022)

Mendes passion project is strangely free of passion in a film that misses the targets it aims for

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: Olivia Colman (Hilary Small), Micheal Ward (Stephen Murray), Tom Brooke (Neil), Toby Jones (Norman), Colin Firth (Donald Ellis), Tanya Moodie (Delia), Hannah Onslow (Janine), Crystal Clarke (Ruby), Monica Dolan (Rosemary Bates), Sara Stewart (Brenda Ellis)

In 1981, Hilary Small (Oliva Colman) is the duty manager of grand, old-fashioned, Margate sea-front cinema The Empire. A quiet, lonely spinster who’s never seen any of the cinema’s movies, she carefully performs her duties at work which include servicing the sexual needs of owner Mr Ellis (Colin Firth). However, her life changes when young Black man Stephen Murray (Micheal Ward) starts as an usher. The two strike up a friendship that becomes a relationship – but runs into conflict as Stephen struggles with growing racism and Hilary suffers a relapse into schizophrenia.

Empire of Light has been described as personal passion project by Sam Mendes. Bizarrely it feels like a film which all passion has been strained out of. It’s a functional and safe film, scripted with little inspiration and given life largely by the charisma of its two leads.

Empire of Light partially frames itself as a love-letter to cinema-going and film. Strangely it hardly engages with either of these. In fact, it could (with minor script changes) be set just as easily in a department store, petrol station or bingo hall. This is a film where no-one talks about cinema, watches a film or even seems interested. Toby Jones’ projectionist explains the mechanics of his trade in what feels like a carefully scripted explanation of the workings of a machine the writer knows nothing about. For all the beauty of Roger Deakins’ photography, there is no moment of magic that you might expect from a director who claims to be enamoured with the medium.

Hilary finally decides to watch a film for the first time: “pick any one you like” she tells Jones. He tees up Being There – a film I’m wondering if Mendes has seen. For starters, would I show a film about mental health featuring a racist cartoon in the middle to a woman struggling with her own mental health who has just watched a close friend being beaten up by the National Front? You’re left feeling Norman simply teed up whatever film was in the machine. But then, as he says, he doesn’t really watch the films anyway. Afterwards Hilary and Stephen chat about Peter Sellers – but never once mention he has only just died.

Empire of Light fails at most other things it attempts to do. Its heart is in the coming-of-age, second-chance-at-life romance at its centre. There is fine chemistry between Colman and Ward, and their bashful coming together works as a meeting of two spiritually similar people who feel life is passing them by. Their unspoken courtship early on – rescuing a wounded pigeon together in the abandoned upper-storey of the Empire or watching the New Years fireworks on the roof – has a pleasant innocence. But fundamentally, these characters feel ill-defined and go through personal crises that feel pat and under-developed.

Colman gives her all as Hilary – although this sort of dumpy, frumpy, tragic, timid woman is becoming a little too much of a calling card – but this is a thin character. We slowly realise Hilary is a woman struggling with mental health – making her sexual exploitation by Firth’s smug, sleazy, manager even more unpleasant. She carefully goes about her work, stares down at the ground and wouldn’t even dream of intruding on the cinema-goer by actually watching the film. Colman masters the little touches of glee she gets at the presence of Stephen, Hilary’s simultaneous enjoyment and bashfulness about what she assumes is a hopeless crush.

Where the film fails though is in finding any depth in Hilary’s struggles with schizophrenia. Colman’s character is inspired, in many ways, by Mendes’ own mother. The film aims for a sympathetic presentation of mental health, which it manages but without providing any insight. While many aspects of mental health were not discussed at the time, a film made today really should have more to say than Empire of Light musters.  Instead, Hilary’s condition feels like a dramatic shorthand. For a passion project that’s not good enough – the film even falls back on the age-old “stops taking her meds” plotline. For all the gusto and commitment Colman brings to Hilary’s mental collapse – a furious destruction of a sandcastle, or ranting, drunk, in an apartment where the walls are strewn with self-penned graffiti – it never feels insightful enough.

It’s sadly the same with Micheal Ward’s Stephen. For all Ward is hugely charming as this saintly young man – and for all he expertly suggests Stephen’s anger at the growing tide of racism in Britain – the issues he deals with feel like window-dressing. The most interesting moment is his confrontation with an angry, racist customer who is appeased by Hilary rather than challenged – much to Stephen’s justified fury. But name-checking Brixton and New Cross and saying “it’s getting worse” doesn’t really feel like getting to grips with the dilemmas he, and young men like him, were facing. Particularly when Stephen responds to a deadly beating with something approaching a shrug of the shoulders. You can’t argue with Mendes’ genuine feelings, but there is never enough depth.

Instead, these major social issues are benched by the film’s end, making them feel like discussion points to make Hilary feel better about her life and for Stephen to resolve to move on with his. It has less to say about these issues than an episode of Call the Midwife. Just as it has nothing to say about the magic of cinema going, turning it into a retro back-drop of posters and old sweeties. Far from making a case for cinema, it makes the building as irrelevant as some worry it is becoming today.

Mothering Sunday (2021)

Mothering Sunday (2021)

Arthouse flourishes and trickery drown this try-hard literary adaptation

Director: Eva Husson

Cast: Odessa Young (Jane Fairchild), Josh O’Connor (Paul Sheringham), Sope Dirisu (Donald), Olivia Colman (Mrs Niven), Colin Firth (Mr Niven), Glenda Jackson (Older Jane Fairchild), Patsy Ferran (Milly), Emma D’Arcy (Emma Hobday)

Based on an award-winning novel by Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday is mostly set on a single day: March 30th 1924. Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) is the maid of the Nivens (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman), both of whose sons died in the Great War. The only surviving son of their close social circle is Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor), who has been conducting a secret sexual affair with Jane for several years. On this fateful day, Paul sneaks away from his fiancée (who was originally to marry the Nivens’ deceased son, James) for a tryst with Jane. The tragic after-effects will shape Jane’s future life. This is intercut throughout the film as she deals with the illness years later of her lover, philosopher Donald (Sope Dirisu).

Mothering Sunday is a proud, in fact a little too proud, art-house film. It takes an intricate, well structured and delicate novel by Swift and piles on the technique to try and wring as much meaning from the piece as possible. In doing so, Husson drowns a simple story in cinematic tools. Skilful cutting, intriguing shots, rich layered music, artful compositions, juddering intercutting between timelines, repeated shots and symbolic compositions eventually give an impression of a film trying too hard to impress.

It’s a story that would have carried a world more impact if it had been told with simple directness, where stylistic flourishes felt natural rather than exploited at every conceivable opportunity. Instead of moving though, the film eventually becomes tiring and the pointed dynamism of the film’s making gets in the way of the emotion. As we are cut away from moments of emotion, or the dialogue tries too hard to capture the complexity of Swift’s writing (as my wife put it, “there is a lot of talk about jizz”), we are constantly prevented from encountering the quiet emotion and unspoken devastation that should be at the heart of this simple-but-shattering story.

Even when Olivia Colman’s character – in her only real scene – is heart-rendingly confessing her pain at the loss of her children and her envy of Jane for her orphan status (she has no one to lose), Husson’s camera seems at least as interested in making you admire the fiddily mirror-based tracking shot she is using to shoot it. It is far more impactful and graceful when it sits still: for example moments like Colin Firth’s well judged performance of deeply repressed grief and pain, which expresses itself in very British banalities about the weather and doing-the-decent-thing.

Which isn’t to say that Mothering Sunday is a bad film, or that there aren’t moments of deeply impressive film-making. A dashboard-mounted camera that follows Jane’s disguised torment as she is driven to the scene of disaster is memorable, and there are beautiful shots like an aerial shot lingering over a fire in a forest that haunt the imagination. The film has a haunting quality to it, like a half-memory that flits from clear picture to clear picture via hazy recollection. But all this style swamps the impact. The film never has the patience to sit down and let us get involved in its story properly. Or really tackle how lasting the impact of loss – particularly the generational loss of the 1910s – had on families and, by extension, the whole country.

Mothering Sunday’s main successful feature is the hugely impressive performance from Australian actress Odessa Young. Not only is her accent faultless, but Young has a poetic romanticism in here that sits equally alongside an old soul within a young body. Much of the film is dependent on her micro-reactions to moments of life-changing sorrow and joy. She spends a large chunk of the film naked (as required by the source material – although this is also another tiresome sign of the film’s overly proud ‘arthouse’ badge) – but imbues this with a bohemian freeness that suggests it’s the only time, released from the shackles of her work clothes, that she feels truly free. She carries almost the whole film and does so with a consummate, compelling ease.

There are fine performances as well from Josh O’Connor – channelling Prince Charles somewhat – as a conflicted man, crushed by the burden of carrying the expectations for a whole generation, and Sope Dirisu (in a rather thankless role) as Jane’s later philosopher lover. Glenda Jackson contributes a neat cameo as a Doris Lessing-like older Jane, now a hugely successful novelist, reacting just like she did to the winning of the “major international prize” for literature.

But the overall film never quite manages to carry the impact it should. It should leave you consumed with the sadness and waste of early death and the destruction that comes from war. Instead, you will remember more the pyrotechnical invention of its making – and the wonderful score by Morgan Kibby – rather than any heart or sense of tragedy.

The Lost Daughter (2021)

The Lost Daughter (2021)

Motherhood, loss and guilt are at the heart of this over-extended drama that doesn’t feel like it focuses on the right things

Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal

Cast: Olivia Colman (Leda Caruso), Jessie Buckley (Young Leda Caruso), Dakota Johnson (Nina), Ed Harris (Lyle), Dagmara Dominczyk (Callie), Paul Mescal (Will), Peter Sarsgaard (Professor Hardy), Jack Farthing (Joe), Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Toni), Athena Martin (Elena), Robyn Elwell (Bianca), Ellie Blake (Martha)

Leda (Olivia Colman), a professor of Italian Literature, holidays in Greece. That holiday is disturbed by the arrival of a noisy, aggressive family from Queens. A member of that family, unhappy young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson) loses her daughter on a beach. Leda finds her, but it triggers her own unhappy memories of motherhood (Jessie Buckley plays the young Leda). She impulsively steals the child’s beloved doll, as her paranoia and mournful reflections grow.

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut is a confident, assured piece of film-making, but I found it a cold and slightly unsatisfying film. There is a fascinating subject here, that the film fails to really tackle. One of life’s great unspoken expectations is that everyone should find being a parent – especially being a mother – hugely rewarding. This film studies a woman who didn’t, but still wants to reassure us of the love and happiness found in the bond with a child, no matter your mistakes as a parent. In doing so, it marginally ducks an important societal issue and reaches conclusions that feel predictable, for all the ambiguity the film ends with.

Colman’s expressive face and ability to suggest acres of unhappiness in a forced smile or gallons of frustration with a single intake of breath, are used to maximum effect. Leda is a woman comfortable with her own company, forced and uncomfortable in conversation, her eyes flicking away as if looking for an exit. She seems confused about how to respond to the quiet advances of handyman Lyle (a gentle Ed Harris) and increasingly resents the intrusion into her holiday of outsiders.

How much is this slightly misanthropic, isolated view of the world her natural personality, and how much has it grown from her choices in the past? Flashbacks reveal her struggles as a mother – and the strained relationship with her children today – and it’s clear Leda is a bubble of confused emotions, uncertain about what she thinks and feels.

That past, to me, is the real area of interest, rather than the distant, cold woman those choices have created. I’d argue a stronger film – and one that would feel like it was really making a unique point – would have focused on the younger Leda. Expertly played by an Oscar-nominated Jessie Buckley –brittle and growing in claustrophobic depression – she loves her two girls. But, most of the time, finds them overbearing, all-consuming and more than a little irritating. She’ll laugh at their jokes and be terrified when one of them gets lost, while still resenting their domineering impact on her life.

When she wants to work, they demand attention. When her daughter has a small cut on her finger, Leda is repeatedly asked to kiss it better like a broken record. Leda gives her other daughter her own childhood doll – and then throws it out of a window in fit of hurt fury when the daughter covers it in crayon and says she doesn’t like it. The kids get in the way of everything: be it work (she retreats behind headphones to focus), holidays, sex with her husband or even masturbation.

Her feelings go beyond post-natal depression. She is someone who genuinely loves her children, but can’t bear the idea of mothering them. This is the meat of the film, far more than the present-day narrative. Gyllenhaal sensitively tackles a rarely discussed topic: what can we do if we find parenthood was a mistake? Knuckle down or give up and run away? A film exploring this could have been compelling: but it only takes up a quarter of an over-extended film.

Instead, by focusing on the maladjusted present-day Leda, the film presents her motherhood difficulties as the root cause of her problems. Leda sees a potential kindred spirit in young mother Nina – a brash and exhausted Dakota Fanning – who seems equally frustrated by parenting. But Leda is so insular and self-obsessed, is she only seeing what she wants to see? If she thinks Nina is also failing as a mother, will that make her feel better about her own failures?

The Lost Daughter is an unreliable narrator film – and Gyllenhaal expertly suggests much of what we see are Leda’s perceptions rather than necessarily the truth. The menace from Nina’s loud and aggressive extended family is a constant presence: but is it real, or just Lena’s paranoia. Does the family really cover every tree with a missing poster for a child’s lost doll, or does it just that way to Leda? Does Nina share Leda’s own resentments with motherhood, or does Leda just want her to?

It’s a subtle ambiguity that continues until the film’s close. It leaves many questions unanswered and open to the viewers interpretation. Different viewers will take very different messages from it. But for me, the film wasn’t quite interesting enough – and shied away from exploring the questions of guilt and doubt about parenthood. At no point does Leda even voice the possibility that she regrets having kids – for all that she surely does – which feels odd. For me the film takes a long time to not quite say as much as I feel it could have done.

The Father (2020)

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins excel in Florian Zeller’s sublime The Father

Director: Florian Zeller

Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Anthony), Olivia Colman (Anne), Rufus Sewell (Paul), Imogen Poots (Laura), Olivia Williams (The Woman), Mark Gatiss (The Man)

Is there any worse nightmare than the thought of losing your mind? Worse of all, to lose your mind in stages: to be aware, in every moment, that things are not as they should be, that people and places no longer seem to fit your memory of them. That you can walk into a room and completely forget why or meet someone close to you and have no a clue who they are. It’s an unimaginable condition to go through – and the subject of Florian Zeller’s exceptional adaptation of his award-winning play, The Father.

Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) is a retired engineer slowly succumbing to dementia. Events are increasingly confusing to him. Is he living in his own flat, or is he living with his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman)? Is Anne moving to France or not? Is she married to Paul (Rufus Sewell) or not? Where is his other daughter who looks so like a woman who may-or-may-not be his new carer, Laura (Imogen Poots)? From moment-to-moment Anthony struggles with confusion, rage and fear as the world constantly fails to coalesce into a meaningful picture, but instead remains a fragmented jumble.

That’s the brilliance behind Zeller’s adaptation of his own award-winning play. It captures the perspective of the world for those suffering from dementia in a way no film has done before. The play’s timeline is disjointed in an almost Nolan-esque way, and it’s not clear whether we are watching ‘real’ events’ or if all of these events are memories of Anthony’s which dementia has shuffled, reordered and recast. Either way, the film constantly refuses to allow you any grounding from scene-to-scene, and refuses to present clear answers (although you can infer much).

Even the sets betray us. From to scene to scene the apartment is redressed, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes in jarringly different ways. The same fundamental layout sees every room constantly redesigned. Sometimes it could be Anthony’s apartment. Sometimes Anne’s apartment. Sometimes a mix of the two. Sometimes it’s a hospital, in others a retirement home. Often it might be a combination of one or more of these locations all at once. The style of decoration is inconsistent, the furniture changes, pictures move, even the colours of bedsheets change. Every single scene disorientates us: it’s only a movie for us, but for Anthony this is his life.

In fact, if The Father has a filmic influence, interestingly it’s a horror-film. Anthony is a man trapped in a situation where he knows everything is wrong, but can never fully understand why, or get people to listen to him. Often the camera catches discomfort and fear on Hopkins’ face, and it’s clear he neither knows where he is or, in many cases, who the people with him are. But for fear of not being believed or a sense of powerlessness, he’s too proud and scared to ask. It taps into the powerlessness of horror films, where you are relentlessly chased by a force outside your control: in The Father that force is life, which has become for Anthony a disturbing kaleidoscope where everything makes sense to everyone except him.

Of course, a large part of this is sold by Anthony Hopkins Oscar-winning lead performance. Hopkins delivers to an astonishing degree: this might just be the greatest performance of his career. Although we see flashes of ‘the true Anthony’ – his wit, playfulness and intelligence – Hopkins deftly and subtly demonstrates the wildly varying mood swings dementia brings. At times he’s paranoid, defensive and even aggressive. At others he’s stunningly vulnerable and scared – he has two breakdown scenes of such heart-breaking vulnerability and boyish fear, they are tough to watch.

The film opens with Anne telling Anthony she’ll be leaving for Paris, and Hopkins’ face collapses into a crumpled, puffy, scared-little-boy face while he plaintively asks what will happen to him. Anthony fixates on things that give him any sense of control: he is obsessed with his watch, hiding it and continuously searching for it. He will dredge up a fact from the distant past to ‘prove’ he has not lost his memory. He snaps angrily when he feels he is being talked down to. His resentment expresses itself in viciously cruel verbal assaults on Anne, labelling her a disappointment, failure and his least favourite child. Then a few scenes later he’ll squeeze her shoulder and quietly and lovingly thank her for everything she has done for him. All of this is delivered by Hopkins with no grand-standing, but with a hugely affecting truthfulness. It’s an astonishingly good performance.

Every scene carefully demonstrates time and again Anthony’s fear and vulnerability. Actors are even replaced by other actors in several scenes. In Anne’s second appearance she is played by Olivia Williams. In a beautiful piece of subtle acting by both Hopkins and Williams, it’s clear Anthony doesn’t recognise Anne and she realises this but decides not to say anything. Anne’s husband (or boyfriend – Anthony remains unclear, so at times so do we) Paul (as he’s called most of the time) is mostly played by Rufus Sewell, but sometimes by Mark Gatiss. Paul is the closest the film has to an antagonist, although much of that is filtered through Anthony’s confused perception and, in any case, Paul is right that Anthony’s condition is making it too difficult for him to remain at home.

And we can see his point. Although each scene more-or-less makes sense within itself, the complete film is like looking at a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces upside down and no picture, and then being asked to assemble it. In one particularly brilliant dinner scene, the film starts with Anthony witnessing a conversation between Paul and Anne, then loops through the scene and ends with Anthony witnessing exactly the same conversation again. The film is a deliberately, brilliantly, opaque tableau that defies easy meaning.

In all, The Father is a quite unique and brilliant film, that translates a theatrical piece into something highly cinematic. Hopkins is breath-taking, but Colman is also superb as Anne, in a part tailor-made for her ready empathy and easy emotionalism. Zeller’s direction is astonishingly confident and dynamic for a first-timer and the film slots you into the world of a dementia sufferer with an alarming immediacy. A superb film.

The Favourite (2018)

Olivia Colman is at the centre of a complex rivalry in The Favourite

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Cast: Olivia Colman (Queen Anne), Emma Stone (Abigail Hill), Rachel Weisz (Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough), Nicholas Hoult (Lord Robert Harley), Joe Alwyn (Colonel Lord Masham), Mark Gatiss (Lord Marlborough), James Smith (Lord Godolphin)

Looking around the cinema, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the audience were expecting The Favourite to be a Sunday night-style costume drama about Queen Anne. Goodness only knows what they made of this skittishly filmed, acidic, sharp-tongued, very rude drama about squabbles in the court of Queen Anne. The Crown it ain’t.

In 1708, the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is dominated completely by her head of household, chief advisor, secret lover and domineering best friend Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). But Sarah’s control over Queen Anne is set to be challenged by the arrival in court of seemingly charming, but in fact ruthlessly ambitious, cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a former aristocrat who has fallen on hard times. Soon Sarah and Abigail find themselves in the middle of a bitter, ruthless clash for control over Anne – who, seemingly weak-willed and disinterested in government, in fact takes an eager pleasure from the rivalry of the two women.

The Favourite is a brilliant, acerbic, very dark comedy that treats its period setting with a hilarious lack of reverence. It’s a frequently laugh-out loud comedy, with its often foul-mouthed dialogue just on the edge of being anachronistic (a trait that also comes into the hilarious non-period dancing). It takes a moment to tune up, but leans just enough on the fourth wall to work. Lanthimos’ film doubles down on the insane pressure bowl of Anne’s courts, turning the court of the 1700s into a bizarre, semi-surreal state where you have no idea what insanity you might see around the corner – from racing ducks, to rabbits roaming free, to a naked man being pelted with oranges. 

But then this is the sort of bizarreness that stems from the top, and Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne is a domineering eccentric. In a film-career-making performance from Colman, her Queen Anne is part infantalised puppet, part needy insecure lover, part bitter control freak. Anne will change from scene to scene from a furious, knee-jerk rage to a weeping vulnerability. Her interest in actually ruling the kingdom has been largely beaten out of her, but she still needs to feel that she holds the power. With her body raddled with gout, Anne alternates between demanding independence and being wheeled from place to place. Colman’s performance bravely skits between temper tantrums and a desperate, panicked loneliness and sadness – it’s a terrific performance.

A woman as uncertain and unhappy in herself as Anne is basically pretty ripe for control and manipulation. History has not been kind to Sarah Churchill, who is often seen as a ruthless, power-hungry manipulator only out for what she can get, obsessed with the power her role brings her. This film takes a different, more interesting slant, thanks in part to Rachel Weisz’s superb performance. Weisz plays Churchill as a strong-minded, hard to like woman, who has a genuine bond with Anne, but honestly believes she is better suited to execute the powers of royalty than her lover. But that doesn’t stop her having feelings for her – or priding herself on refusing to lie to Anne about anything (from her appearance to her behaviour). But this doesn’t stop Sarah from ruthlessly bullying Anne or threatening her – though she’s equally happy to climb into bed with her when required.

But Sarah Churchill here is doing the things she is doing because she honestly believes that it is what is best for the kingdom and (by extension) Anne, and the moments of shared remembrance between Anne and Sarah have a genuine warmth and feeling to them. Which makes her totally different from the ruthless Abigail, played with a stunning brilliance by Emma Stone. Abigail doesn’t give a damn about anything or anyone but herself: something the rest of the servants in the household seem to recognise instinctively as soon as she arrives, but a danger Sarah doesn’t detect until too late. Abigail’s every action is to promote her own wealth and prestige, and she’ll do whatever it takes to do that, from crawling through the mud for herbs to crawling between the sheets to pleasure Anne at night. Stone’s Abigail is ruthless, self-obsessed, uncaring and on the make in another terrific performance.

The film focuses in large part on the see-sawing fortunes of these two rivals for the role of favourite – with Anne as the fulcrum in the middle. The film is split into eight chapters, each of which is opened by a quirky quote from the chapter itself. It neatly structures the film, and also gives it a slight off-the-wall quality. The film is packed with electric scenes, as the women wear the trousers in the court (often literally, in Sarah Churchill’s case), riding and shooting in their spare time and slapping down the assorted politicians and lords desperately trying to promote their interests on the edge of the court. This battle of wits and wills is a fabulous, increasingly no-holds barred, rivalry that motors the film brilliantly.

Lanthimos loves every moment of scheming and double crossing the film supplies. He shoots the film with a selection of low-angle and fisheye lenses, which make the palace settings seem as imposing, large and domineering as possible – and also distorts the world just as the feud between the two women is doing. The film looks fabulous, with its intricate design and it’s candle lit lighting. Lanthimos’ court always looks gloomy and secretive, with only a few spots of orange warmth.

Lanthimos also understands that there is very little room for sentiment or feeling here, and the flashes of it we get are never allowed time to really grow. That’s not a negative of course, as this sharp comic drama is also an arch commentary on some of the selfishness and distortion of events that lies under politics (sound familiar?), with the interests of the ordinary people of the realm raising very little interest from any side on the political divide. And Anne is such a bizarre character, so pulled between pillar and post, so desperately unhappy so much of the time, so utterly spoilt the rest, that you understand how she has become such a chew toy for court faction, and why she is happy to tacitly encourage this world where her every whim is played to for advantage.

I laughed out loud several times during The Favourite. It’s obvious to say that it feels like a film for the #metoo era – but it certainly has three fabulous, brilliant, hilarious and strangely heartfelt performances from its three female leads, three of the best actresses in the business. Wonderfully directed, beautifully written and fabulously designed, this is properly fantastic cinema.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

A dishevelled Kenneth Branagh (and tache) investigates a Murder on the Orient Express

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Kenneth Branagh (Hercule Poirot), Tom Bateman (Bouc), Penélope Cruz (Pilar Estravados), Willem Dafoe (Gerhard Hardman), Judi Dench (Princess Dragomiroff), Johnny Depp (Samuel Ratchett), Josh Gad (Hector MacQueen), Derek Jacobi (Edward Masterman), Leslie Odom Jnr (Dr Arbuthnot), Michelle Pfeiffer (Caroline Hubbard), Daisy Ridley (Mary Debenham), Marwan Kenzari (Pierre Michel), Olivia Colman (Hildegarde Schmidt), Lucy Boynton (Countess Elena Andrenyi), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Biniamino Marquez), Sergei Polunin (Count Rudolph Andrenyi), Miranda Raison (Sonia Armstrong)

Is there a murder mystery with a more widely known resolution than Murder on the Orient Express? Possibly not – if for no other reason that film and television versions of this story are as numerous as the suspects in the actual mystery. If that wasn’t a big enough challenge for Branagh to take on, he also joins a list of umpteen actors to play Poirot himself: following in the (very precise) footsteps of the big guns: Finney, Ustinov and of course, above all, David Suchet. How does his version of this most famous detective in his most famous adventure measure up? Well, with mixed results.

For those who don’t know, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is “possibly the world’s greatest detective”. Here, he is travelling back from Istanbul  on the Orient Express, a berth having being secured at the last minute by his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) the director of the line. En route he is approached by the sinister Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who asks if he can serve as his bodyguard. Poirot refuses – only for Ratchett to be murdered that night. Bouc asks Poirot to investigate – and it soon becomes clear that the dozen other passengers in Ratchett’s carriage could all have had motives to kill him. But who is the killer?

Murder on the Orient Express is on the cusp of being a very good film. But, like the train itself, it gets bogged down too often in changes from the source material that add nothing, action scenes that feel toe-curlingly out of place, and bombastic filming that goes a little bit too far. In many ways it captures some of the faults of its director, my much-loved hero Kenneth Branagh – and I do love him, but as a director he has a tendency to make things too big, to wear his love of the complex shot on his sleeve; to basically try too hard. As a director, that’s what it feels like he’s doing here.

It’s filmed with a luscious, chocolate box, old-school Hollywood grandeur. The camera swoops and zooms over some gorgeous landscape as the train puffs through snowy mountain scenery. There are some loving travelogue tracking shots of Istanbul and Jerusalem. The film lingers with a loving eye on the luxury and class of the Orient Express itself (including some egregiously clunky product placement). The costumes look lovely.  But the end result of all this lavish filming is that it sometimes goes too far towards the reassuring, Boxing-Day-afternoon treat. 

Everything is a little too technicolour at points. It also means that some of Branagh’s more self-consciously tricksy camera work stands out a little too much. A “birds-eye” view of the discovery of the body (the camera above the heads of the actors looking straight down) is oddly disconnecting – it works a lot better when Poirot and Bouc examine the crime scene, giving the audience a god like view of the scene. Some overly complicated shots swoop up along the aqueduct where the train is stuck, past Poirot speaking to characters, then over the top of the train. It’s a rather too overblown and clumsy attempt to make a conversation seem cinematic – it feels a little forced.

It’s one of many points where the film feels like it is trying too hard to make the story edgier or more overtly cinematic. Not the least of these are sequences that up the action quotient. I feel very confident this is the first Poirot film you’ll ever see where the hero is involved in not one but two dynamic fights. One of these is a bizarre chase down the aqueduct with Poirot and another character. The second involves gunfire (an effective shock to be fair) and Poirot using his cane as a weapon in hand-to-hand combat. 

There is nothing wrong with making Poirot more active – Branagh’s character is very much the ex-soldier and policeman, busting open the door to Ratchett’s berth to investigate, walking over the train’s roof, brow-beating the odd suspect (at one point at gun point). It’s just all too much – what audience is this playing to? Who really goes to a Poirot film expecting a goddamn fight scene? Even Count Andrenyi is introduced ninja-kickboxing photographers (I’m not joking here) – is this really what Agatha Christie would have wanted?

There are some odd choices made to deepen Poirot’s character. He is given some sort of lost romantic interest – no less than four times in the film he is given scenes where he holds a photo and bemoans “mon cher Kat-a-rean”. In the opening sequence, Poirot’s love of symmetry is introduced by him accidentally stepping in a cow pat and then stepping in it with his other foot to make each equal. Not only does a “stepping in shit” joke seem wildly out of place, but I don’t believe someone as fastidious and observant as Poirot would even step in it in the first place, let alone choose to step into it twice.

The train doesn’t just stop, it’s nearly taken out by an avalanche. A knife isn’t just discovered, it’s literally found stabbed into a character’s back. Characters have been changed to allow a more diverse cast – which I applaud – but making Arbuthnot a soldier turned doctor is a change that makes very little sense. The claustrophobia of the original is lost by having workers turn up almost immediately to dig the train out. Several scenes are filmed outside, with workers surrounding the train digging it out. Some of these undermine the original or are a little silly.

The suspect assemble

But I’m being really hard on this film because there are major flashes of promise here. Not least in Branagh’s performance as Poirot. I’m very confident in saying that, after David Suchet of course, this is the second best Poirot committed to film. The first thing anyone will notice is of course the moustache. Yes it looks absurd, but you attune to it quickly. It’s also a plot point: Poirot uses it, and his eccentricities, to lure people (Columbo style) into a false sense of security. When the film relaxes into just letting Poirot investigate (and hues closer to the original), Branagh gives Poirot a warm humanity and gentleness. His eyes are a wonder – intense disks of sadness. 

Branagh gives Poirot a love of order and justice that defines his world view – and the film introduces a moral conundrum for Poirot in the solution of the crime. I would say David Suchet’s TV version did this better – stressing Poirot’s Catholicism and belief in the rule of law as major factors that conflict him when confronted with the solution. But Branagh captures a real sense of Poirot’s conflict (even if the solution reveal is overplayed and overshot – right down to a “last supper” style tableaux in a railway tunnel) and his sadness, confusion and decency are really lovely – there is even a very neat touch with him forgetting to straight and smarten his appearance, as he deals with the ramifications of his solution to the murder. He looks like cartoon character, but he makes Poirot a real man. I would definitely like to see him do the role again.

The rest of the all-star cast rather struggle for crumbs, as the focus remains solidly on Poirot (largely because the film is intended as the possible first in a series). Tom Bateman is excellent as Bouc, charming and endearing but also given a character arc that sees him develop and change. Of the stars, Depp is suitably grimy as Ratchett, Pfeiffer imperiously stylish and skittish as Hubbard and Odum Jnr affecting as Arbuthnot. I was very taken with Daisy Ridley’s Mary Debenham, a young charm hiding steel underneath. Dafoe, Dench, Colman, Jacobi and the rest are given little to do but are reliably excellent when they are. Others like Cruz feel wasted. 

When the film focuses on Poirot simply investigating, it is very good. Each interrogation of the passengers is brilliantly played by Branagh – Poirot subtly adjusting his methods and approach depending on the person he is talking to. Poirot’s introduction sequence in Jerusalem has a playful Sherlock feel to it: Poirot solving a crime in seconds (having been dragged from his hotel, where he pickily demands eggs that are perfectly equal), including accurately predicting how the criminal will try and escape. There are lots of lovely moments – but just when you settle down to enjoy it, something wildly over-the-top or silly happens.

Murder on the Orient Express is by no stretch of the imagination a bad movie. In some places, it’s charming and a lot of fun. If it’s designed for watching on a bank holiday afternoon it works very well. But it’s, at best, the third best version of this story on film (after the 1974 Lumet film and the Suchet TV version). Do we really need to watch the third best version of an already familiar story? If we could transplant Branagh’s performance into Lumet’s film, now that would be something. But as it is, we’ve got a decent if flawed film that just tries too hard to do too much.

The Iron Lady (2011)

Meryl Streep impersonates the Iron Lady to excellent effect in this otherwise bland and forgettable, compromised mess of a picture

Director: Phyllida Lloyd

Cast: Meryl Streep (Margaret Thatcher), Jim Broadbent (Denis Thatcher), Olivia Colman (Carol Thatcher), Roger Allam (Gordon Reece), Nicholas Farrell (Airey Neave), Iain Glen (Alfred Roberts), Richard E. Grant (Michael Heseltine), Anthony Head (Sir Geoffrey Howe), Harry Lloyd (Young Denis Thatcher), Michael Pennington (Michael Foot), Alexandra Roach (Young Margaret Thatcher), John Sessions (Edward Heath)

In British politics has there been a figure as controversial as Margaret Thatcher? A domineering Prime Minister who reshaped the country (for better or worse depending on who you speak to), crafting a legacy in the UK’s politics, economy and society that we will continue to feel for the foreseeable future, she’s possibly one of the most important figures in our history. It’s a life rich for a proper biographical treatment; instead, it gets this film.

The film’s framing device is focused on the ageing Thatcher (Meryl Streep), now dealing with onset dementia and having detailed conversations with her deceased husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). Cared for by her daughter Carol (Olivia Colman), she reflects on her political career and the sacrifices she made personally to achieve these. Woven in and out of this are Thatcher’s increasingly disjointed memories of her political career.

The most surprising thing about this film is how little it actually wants to engage with Thatcherism itself. Perhaps aware that (certainly in the UK) Thatcher remains an incredibly divisive figure, the film’s focus is actually her own struggles with grief and approaching dementia. Her career as PM is relegated to a series of flashbacks and short scenes, which fill probably little more than 20-30 minutes of the runtime, shot and spliced together as a mixture of deliberately subjective memories and fevered half-dreams. Can you imagine a film about Thatcher where Arthur Scargill and the miners’ strike doesn’t merit a mention? You don’t need to: thanks to The Iron Lady it now exists. 

Perhaps Thatcher’s politics were considered to “unlikeable” – certainly, one imagines, by its writer and director – to be something to craft a film around, so it was thought better to brush them gently under the table. Instead the focus is to make Thatcher as sympathetic as possible to a viewer who didn’t share her politics, by concentrating on her struggles against sexism in the 1950s and her struggles with age late on. Why not accept what Thatcher stood for and make a film (for better or worse) about that? Perhaps more material on her actual achievements in office were shot and cut (the film does have a very short run time and underuses its ace supporting cast), but the whole film feels fatally compromised – which is more than a little ironic since it is about a woman famous for her lack of compromise.

In fact it’s rather hard to escape the view that Roger Ebert put forward: “few people were neutral in their feelings about [Thatcher], except the makers of this picture”. It’s a film with no real interest in either politics or history, the two things that defined Thatcher’s entire life. And as if to flag up the mediocre nature of the material they’ve chosen, it’s then interspersed with too-brief cuts to more interesting episodes from Thatcher’s life than those we are watching. Only when the older Thatcher hosts a dinner party and launches into a blistering sudden condemnation of Al-Qaeda and support of military action against terrorism (followed by her casual disregard of a hero-worshipping acolyte) do we ever get a sense of finding out something about her, or of seeing her personality brought to life.

The film’s saving grace is of course Meryl Streep’s terrific impersonation of Thatcher. I call it impersonation as the film so strenuously avoids delving into the events and opinions that shaped Thatcher that Streep gets very little opportunity to really develop a character we can understand, or to present an insight into her. Her performance as the older Thatcher – losing control of her mannerisms, deteriorating over the course of the film – is impressive in its technical accomplishment, but that’s largely what it remains. As the film doesn’t allow us to really know Thatcher, and doesn’t work with what defines her, it largely fails to move us when we see her weak and alone. So for all the accomplishment of Streep’s work, I couldn’t say this was a truly great performance – certainly of no comparison to, say, Day-Lewis as Lincoln or Robert Hardy as Churchill. I’d even say Andrea Riseborough’s performance in TV’s The Long Walk to Finchley told us more about the sort of person Thatcher was than Streep does here.

Despite most of the rest of the cast being under-used though, there are some good performances. Jim Broadbent is very good as Denis Thatcher, although again his performance is partly a ghostly collection of mannerisms and excellent complementary acting. However the chemistry between he and Streep is magnificent and accounts for many of the film’s finest moments. Olivia Colman does sterling work under a bizarre fake nose as a no-nonsense Carol Thatcher. From the all-star cast of British actors, Roger Allam stands out as image-consultant Gordon Reece and Nicholas Farrell is superbly calm, cool and authoritative as Airey Neave. Alexandra Roach and Harry Lloyd are excellent impersonating younger Thatchers.

The Iron Lady could have been a marvellous, in-depth study of the politics of the 1980s, and a brilliant deconstruction and discussion of an era that still shapes our views of Britain today. However, it wavers instead into turning a woman defined by her public role and views into a domestic character, and brings no insight to the telling of it. By running scared of Thatcher’s politics altogether, it creates a film which makes it hard to tell why we should be making a fuss about her at all – making it neither interesting to those who know who Thatcher is, nor likely to spark interest in those who have never heard of her.