Tag: Olivia Williams

The Ghost Writer (2010)

The Ghost Writer (2010)

Conspiracies, lies and dirty politics surround a politician who definitely isn’t Blair in Polanski’s superb thriller

Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Ewan McGregor (The Ghost), Pierce Brosnan (Adam Lang), Kim Cattrall (Amelia Bly), Olivia Williams (Ruth Lang), Tom Wilkinson (Professor Paul Emmett), Timothy Hutton (Sidney Kroll), Jon Bernthal (Rick Ricardelli), Tim Preece (Roy), Robert Pugh (Richard Rycart), David Rintoul (Stranger), Eli Wallach (Old Man), James Belushi (John Maddox)

An American publishing company is in dire straits. They’ve paid a fortune for the autobiography of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), once seen as a visionary liberal idol but now blamed for a deeply controversial war in Iraq (sound familiar?). Problem is his trusted aide Mike McCara – who is actually writing the book – has been found drowned on Martha’s Vineyard where Lang, his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and staff are staying. The book needs to be finished in a month – but it’s in an unpublishable mess. Who ya gonna call? A Ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) of celebrity memoirs to finish the job of course. But will the Ghost resist trying to investigate whatever McCara uncovered in Lang’s life that may have led to his suspicious death?

Adapted from a novel by Robert Harris – who turned from a strong supporter of Blair, to terminally disenchanted – The Ghost Writer comes to the screen as a superbly controlled, perfectly placed piece of tight-wound tension from Roman Polanski, that mixes wonderful elements of Hitchcockian menace and Seventies conspiracy thriller, not to mention lashings of his own Chinatownbut here switched to the doom-laden drizzle of New York, rather than the sunkissed glory of California.

Set on a grim, grey and foreboding Martha’s Vineyard (although, for obvious legal reasons, actually filmed in Potsdam), Polanski lets every scene grow in unsettling tension. Very little explicit is every said, but danger from unknown, unseen forces is a constant presence. Accompanied by a Herrmann-esque score from Alexandre Desplat (also with a hint of a twist on Jerry Goldsmith’s work on Chinatown), this is film made with such calm, patient authority that its exudes engrossing tension. Polanski employs some beautiful touches, worthy of Hitchcock: from the Ghost, uncertain if he is being followed when boarding a car ferry, making a desperate run for freedom; to a wonderful tracking shot at a book launch that follows a note containing a vital reveal, passed from hand to hand through a crowd to the guilty speaker.

The Ghost Writer also has neat moments of dark comedy which also feels reminiscent of Hitchcock’s ability to mix dark chuckles with oppressive tension. The Ghost’s recruitment as a writer – and his hilariously frank suggestion that political memoirs are boring beyond belief – is a lovely lightly comic entrée that completely fails to prepare us for the conspiracy thriller that follows in all the right ways. Stuck in Lang’s house on Martha’s Vineyard, the Ghost tries to secretly download a copy of the memoir he is only allowed to read under supervision: his attempt coincides, to his terror, with what turns out to be a test of the alarm system. In the background of a shot during a monologue from Lang, a worker struggles with wearied patience to clean the wind-filled grounds of leaves, constantly, dutifully, collecting them back up as they blow away.

These moments of lightness make the dark even blacker. We are constantly left guessing as to who knows what. Was McCara murdered? What mysteries lie in Lang’s university past that McCara considered so important? Lang and his wife oscillate from welcoming to coldly distant. Particularly so with Ruth Lang, a superb performance from Olivia Williams. Ruth has, quite possibly, been the power behind the Lang throne, but now seems less sure of where she stands. She’s tense, without making clear why and at times painfully blunt. Suffering no fools, brittle, sharply intelligent, coldly determined, her surprisingly vulnerability draws the Ghost in, despite him knowing its “a bad idea”.

But then The Ghost makes more than a few bad ones. Perhaps because he gets fed up with people thinking he’s stupid and is too keen to prove them wrong. Ewan McGregor is wonderful as a man who spends most of his time wearily ignoring digs at the fact he’s best known for ghosting the autobiography of a celebrity chef. The Ghost – as in Harris’ book he remains un-named, suitable for a man whose job is to pretend to be his client – seems to be a disconnected observer, but emerges as a dogged detective – even if he is painfully out of his depth and acting way beyond his expertise. He becomes increasingly panicked at the terrifying world of international politics and espionage, like a beginner swimmer dropped in the deep end, while unable to stop himself digging further, like picking at a scab.

The film picks at its own scab with the legacy of Blair. Brosnan’s confident, charismatic performance captures an impression of Blair while never trying to be an impersonation. He perfectly conveys the easy charm and casual but shallow warmth of the professional politician, but the slightest scratch of the surface reveals a man who feels hard-done-by and undervalued and sick of being judged for making the tough calls. Polanski allows him moments of sympathy: it’s hard not to see his point when he makes the case for what many would call intrusive security and the self-righteousness of his persecutor, former foreign secretary Ryecart (Robert Pugh, channelling Robin Cook) hardly warms the viewer (or the Ghost) to him.

The Ghost Writer manages to make its political parallels – especially about Iraq – pointed but not too heavy handed. (There is a lovely performance from David Rintoul as a calmly spoken former-army type who turns out to be a rabid anti-war protester). It imaginatively fictionalises a version of history, humanising characters who could otherwise be crude caricatures. The cast are wonderful and this is an intelligent, gripping, classic conspiracy thriller. Mastered by Polanski, who assembles the film with such control that it takes a cold grasp of your heart without ever seeming to overwork itself. As the credits roll, Polanski having left us with a poetically tragic image of pages blowing emptily in the wind on a London street, you’ll realise how the quiet doom so expertly built could only have led to one thing. The Ghost shoulda forgot about it: its Chinatown.

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.

Victoria and Abdul (2017)

Victoria and Abdul
Judi Dench and Ali Fazal forge an unlikely friendship in the tame heritage flick Victoria and Abdul

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Judi Dench (Queen Victoria), Ali Fazal (Abdul Karim), Tim Pigott-Smith (Sir Henry Ponsonby), Eddie Izzard (Prince Albert), Adeel Akhtar (Mohammad Bakhsh), Michael Gambon (Lord Salisbury), Paul Higgins (Dr James Reid), Olivia Williams (Baroness Spencer), Fenella Woolgar (Harriet Phipps), Robin Soans (Lord Stamfordham), Simon Callow (Giacomo Puccini)

In the last decade of her life, Queen Victoria (Judi Dench – who else?) makes an Indian servant, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), one of her closest friends and advisors. As Victoria and Abdul become closer, the rest of the court are outraged – bad enough that the Queen is spending all this time with an over-promoted servant, but an Indian as well?!

The fundamental events of Victoria & Abdul are true. There was a man called Abdul Karim – and Victoria did raise him from servant to a confidant. He did cause conflict in the royal household and was finally sent back to India after her death, after surrendering most of his papers. But Victoria & Abdul repackages this friendship into a cosy, Sunday-afternoon entertainment, bereft of depth. And carefully works on the rough surfaces to make the story smooth and easy to digest.

The film is clearly trying to ape the success of Mrs Brown – a far more intelligent and emotionally complex (if similarly heritage) film that looked at Victoria’s previous all-consuming friendship with a male servant, John Brown. But that film didn’t close its eyes to the negatives of such relationships, as this one does. It made clear royal attention can be fickle – and being elevated above others can help make you your own worst enemy. In that film, after a honeymoon, the friendship declines into one of residual loyalty but reduced affection. It’s a realistic look at how we might lean on someone at times of grief, but separate ourselves from them later. Victoria & Abdul takes only one lesson from Mrs Brown: that a close bond between monarch and commoner is heart-warming.

The film in general is in love with the idea that if the Queen could only speak directly to her people, the world would be a better place. It presents a Victoria stifled by court procedure who knows very little about her empire and is constrained by the courtiers around her. It wants us to think that if the Queen took direct rule, she’d be kinder, wiser and more humane. That this figurehead symbol could craft a better British Empire if she was an absolute monarch.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. This romantic view of “Victoria the Good” is comforting stuff, but undermined even within the film by our introduction to the Queen at a royal dinner, where Victoria stuffs food down herself so quickly that mountains of untouched food goes uneaten on the plates of the other diners (as all plates are removed the moment she is finished). And despite being told that the Koh-i-noor diamond was stolen by the British (to her surprise), she still doesn’t think twice about wearing it later in the film while in the midst of her Indian passion. And while the real Victoria loathed the racist attitudes of some at her court, she still clearly sees herself as a paternalistic mother figure for India, which could of course never be able to make its own decisions about things.

Not that the film is interested in tackling more complex ideas of the position of India and its independence. It’s similarly confused by Abdul himself. In a more interesting film, Abdul would have been partly naïve servant and partly charming rogue. He very carefully spins an invented story of himself as a teacher and thinker (he’s actually a clerk from a fabric office) and it would have been interesting to see his building of a relationship with Victoria at least partly being based on self-gain. He certainly gains an awful lot from her – from his own carriage on her train to a home and his own servants. It would have been possible to have this side of him and still have his loyalty and friendship to the Queen being genuine. But it’s too much for the film to tackle.

An Abdul who was consciously playing a role of exotic thinker might have come across as a scam-artist – but would have given the film a lot more to play with, when the royal court is full of people positioning and presenting themselves for influence. Adeel Ahktar’s fellow-servant Mohammed even suggests in one scene that this is what Abdul is doing – and good luck to him. But the film is scared that this could be seen as endorsing the court’s fears about Abdul. So the character is neutered into nothing: he becomes exactly the sort of empty “exotic”, free of opinion and character, that filled out the extras list of a 1940s epic. He has no agency, never makes any decision or expresses any opinion. And his feelings for Victoria are presented as totally genuine which, combined with his foot kissing, turns him into someone who looks and feels really servile.

This is because the film wants to tell the story of a perfect friendship, with the British upper classes as the hissable baddies (never mind that no one is more upper class than Victoria). Never mind that Abdul’s action will indirectly condemn Mohammed to death in the British climate – or that while Abdul rises, Mohammed becomes his servant, still consigned to sleeping on the floor of his railway carriage. We learn nothing about Abdul. How did this clean-living saint become riddled with the clap? Why did he die so young? Did he really think nothing of the riches and honours Victoria showered him with? We don’t have a clue.

Instead the film keeps it simple with goodies (Victoria and Abdul) and baddies (almost everyone else). The most politically astute character, Mohammed, disappears and never allows things to get unpleasant. Jokes of the courtiers standing around aghast saying things like “Now he’s teaching her Urdu” are repeated multiple times. They’re fun, but it substitutes for dealing with the real issues.

It all has the air of ticking boxes. Frears’ direction is brisk, efficient and free of personality. Dench is great, but she could play this role standing on her head while asleep. Pigott-Smith (in his final role) is fine but Farzal has nothing to work with and Izzard provides a laughable pantomime role of lip-smacking villainy as the future Edward VII. The finest performance – handling the most interesting material – is from Ahktar. He’s the only character who seems to place what we see here in any form of context. Other than that, this film is just a string of very comforting heritage ideas, thrown together with professionalism but a total lack of inspiration.

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.

An Education (2009)

First love: Never as smooth as you think it will be

Director: Lone Scherfig

Cast: Carey Mulligan (Jenny Mellor), Peter Sarsgaard (David Goldman), Dominic Cooper (Danny), Rosamund Pike (Helen), Alfred Molina (Jack Mellor), Cara Seymour (Marjorie Mellor), Emma Thompson (Miss Walters), Olivia Williams (Miss Stubbs), Sally Hawkins (Sarah), Ellie Kendrick (Tina)

The education in question is the first sexual relationship of a girl who is 16 going on 17. Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a schoolgirl and prospective Oxford candidate who finds herself winning the attention of charming older man David (Peter Sarsgaard). Jenny is swept off her feet by the world of classy bars, art and culture David introduces her to and begins to lose interest in her literal education: if all education can do is turn women into either lawyers’ wives or teachers what is the point?

Strangely for a film based on a man approaching middle-age taking advantage of a naïve and excited teenager, it’s strangely cosy and charming, with the whiff of “safe” family viewing. Nothing wrong with that of course, but the whole confection is just a little too slight, a little too well packaged, a little too carefully and thoughtfully put together to really leave a lasting impression. Instead it’s an enjoyable enough 90 minutes which doesn’t really have anything that stays with you.

What it does have going for it above all is the marvellous lead performance from Carey Mulligan. At the time best known for appearing in the Blink episode of Doctor Who, Mulligan cements her early promise by demonstrating what a charismatic and vibrant performer she is. Jenny delights in the ease with which David deceives everyone without it ever occurring to her that he might be lying to her, and this teenage arrogance could easily be smackably annoying – but Mulligan makes her deeply engaging and loveable. You want to protect her from making an irrevocable decision that will ruin her life at 16 (sort of the opposite to Bella in Twilight). But Mulligan’s endearingly engaging performance sweeps the audience up into Jenny’s fascination with the exciting life David seems to be offering, and makes you understand why she believes it to be a viable option. She’s a radiant centre to the film and it’s almost impossible to imagine it working at all without her.

It is in fact very well-acted throughout. Sarsgaard underplays the role, suggesting the underlying shallowness and weakness to David which is far clearer to the audience than the characters. The supporting cast are knock-outs: Rosamund Pike is hilarious as a sweet airhead, Alfred Molina embodies the gullibility of the striving middle-classes mixed with great reserves of unspoken love and affection, Olivia Williams is terrific in an underwritten part as Jenny’s concerned teacher.

It’s strange watching the film to see how it romanticizes the sort of behaviour that, if we encountered it today, would be denounced as grooming at best, paedophilia at worst. In fact, the film soft-peddles a lot of the unpleasantness of its characters: David and Danny, it is clear, are conmen and swindlers, though I suspect the film wants us to think of them more as charming rogues. I suppose it’s the impact of seeing the story from Jenny’s perspective, but some more outside commentary would perhaps have been interesting: it also might have been more interesting to see Jenny actually having to deal with the moral consequences of some of the actions that happen around her. 

This is a slight affair, almost a shaggy dog story. There are many more things it could have explored (the swindling career of David, the role of women in the 1960s, the changing perceptions of “blue stockings” and their career options) but instead it settles for being a charming period piece. It makes no secret of the fact that, deep down, we are not meant to trust David and nothing in the plot ever really surprises you. It’s a gentle amble through an ill-advised teenage romance. But, despite all that, it’s very well acted and Carey Mulligan proves she was set to become a star.