Tag: Pete Postlethwaite

The Constant Gardener (2005)

Rachel Weisz and Ralph Fiennes in the brilliant and moving The Constant Gardener

Director: Fernando Meirelles

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Justin Quayle), Rachel Weisz (Tessa Quayle), Danny Huston (Sandy Woodrow), Hubert Koundé (Dr Arnold Bluhm), Archie Panjabi (Ghita Pearson), Bill Nighy (Sir Bernard Pellegrin), Gerard McSorley (Sir Kenneth Curtis), Pete Postlethwaite (Dr Lorbeer), Donald Sumpter (Tim Donohue), Richard McCabe (Arthur Hammond), Juliet Aubrey (Gloria Woodrow)

John Le Carré’s reputation as a spy novelist without peer can lead people to forget his books are often scathing condemnations of Western policy. The Constant Gardener, a superb adaptation of one of his finest novels, is no different. It’s a passionate, angry denunciation of how Western pharmaceutical companies, and their government partners, exploit the people of Africa. But it carries real force as it’s interwoven with a moving and tender study of grief and how it changes us, pushing us to see things from a different perspective. It’s that which gives the film its force.

Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) is a middle-ranking career diplomat, serving in the high commission in Kenya. His wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz), an idealist determined to make a difference, is murdered. Justin determines to get to the bottom of her murder – and finds Tessa was investigating a British drugs company using the distribution of AIDS drugs to poverty-stricken Kenyans to test an experimental TB drug, covering up the harmful side effects and disposing of the dead. As flashbacks reveal Tessa’s investigation and motivations, Justin becomes ever more determined to unmask the drugs companies, and the figures in the British government protecting them.

Directed with vibrant urgency by Fernando Meirelles, The Constant Gardener is part thriller, part romance and part study of loss. Continuing his style from City of God, Meirelles’ camera work is jagged, hand-held and often unsettling, becoming ever more disjointed and edgy as the plot itself heads into darker and darker territory. The film throws us into its Kenyan setting, not shying away from the poverty of the villages. At one point, an aerial shot travels from the golf course, where the British are at play, across a train track and settles on the neighbouring slums.

This is all part of the film’s anger, which translates Le Carré’s feelings from the book. Inspired by the story of an aid worker he met in Cambodia in the 1970s (and who died in Kosovo in the 90s), the film is as furious as the novel at the heartless exploitation of Africa for the benefit of Western companies. Who counts the cost of Kenyan lives lost to experimental drugs? Certainly not the rich and powerful, who keep any consequences at a distance and rationalise them as for the greater good.

And not many have the courage to stand up to this. Most it seems are like Justin – good people who prefer not to think about, or look to deeply at, the impact we are having on the world. It takes a firebrand like Tessa to shake things up – and she pays a huge cost for it. Starting with Tessa’s death, the film feels at first like a mystery, but the culprits are all too obvious. Instead the question is why, not who, and the dark conspiracy that unfolds is really about establishing who knew what rather than who was involved (everyone, of course, was involved).

Rachel Weisz (winning the Supporting Actress Oscar for her work here) excels in a part that could have been a holier-than-thou left-wing agitator, but which she makes warm, human and real. Tessa is a woman who cares deeply, but also loves deeply, who is genuine, unaffected and speaks her mind. Weisz’ performance hits just the right notes, passionate but playful. The bond between her and Justin is real and based on a deep love on both their sides.

So warm is her performance, that you totally understand the all-consuming grief and loss Justin suffers at her death. It’s a very different sort of part for Fiennes – gentle, vulnerable, sweet, far different from his more patrician roles. He nails the part perfectly, bringing out of it a great deal of emotional force. The film is a tender exploration of the impact of grief on a person, and the mixture of shock, sorrow, anger and confusion in Fiennes’ performance feels completely real. This stillness and sombre approach to loss carries real weight.

The film becomes both a crusade – the husband taking up the cause of his slaughtered wife – but also an unusual romance. The greatest pain for Justin is discovering that his wife kept so much of her life secret from him. She did it to protect him, but he longs for the chance to prove to her that he could have been her “secret sharer”, that she could have trusted him. Effectively the film – and Justin’s quest – is to emotionally reunite with his wife, to fully understand her. The emotional heart of the film is this story, the husband effectively communing with the ghost of his wife, wanting there to be no more secrets keeping them apart.

This does mean that, at times, the conspiracy angle of the film gets slightly rushed. A late sequence effectively is four confessions from supporting characters to Justin in a row. The film gets a little bogged down in the mechanics of Justin chasing down various pieces of paper. The eventual quest to find the doctor behind the scandal (a wizened with guilt Pete Postlethwaite) offers a rather neat resolution. But it doesn’t matter too much as the film culminates in an ending that is as bizarrely bleak as it is hopeful.

Beautifully shot by Meirelles, with a raw immediacy that keeps the tension up, with a genuine sense of Kenyan life, it has a wonderful cast of character actors doing their bit (Bill Nighy as an arrogant senior diplomat and Danny Huston as a weasely coward stand out). It’s a film that is full of righteous fury at the West – but also with a tender beating heat for the pain of grief and the struggle with mourning. Emotional and political, it’s the finest Le Carré adaption on film.

Alien 3 (1992)

Sigourney Weaver goes through the motions again in Alien 3

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Sigourney Weaver (Ellen Ripley), Charles S. Dutton (Leonard Dillon), Charles Dance (Dr Jonathan Clemens), Brian Glover (Warden Harold Andrews), Ralph Brown (Aaron), Paul McGann (Golic), Danny Webb (Morse), Lance Henriksen (Bishop), Pete Postlethwaite (David), Peter Guinness (Gregor), Christopher Fairbank (Murphy), Phil Davis (Kevin), Niall Buggy (Eric)

Few films feel more like a grim contractual obligation than Alien 3. If you want a real blood bath, you’d get more entertainment from reading about the tortured history of its production. Over nearly six years it saw off several scripts, at least two directors (including David Fincher resigning over continual studio interference) and Sigourney Weaver only agreeing to do the film if she was killed off at the end (well that and a big pay cheque).

All of this ended up as a depressing, grim and largely unenjoyable mess that goes over the same old ground as the first two films, but with diminishing returns. After the events of Aliens, our heroes ship crash-lands on a prison planet. Everyone on board is killed other than Ripley (we’ll come back to that…). The planet is populated by criminals who have embraced religion, led by Dillon (Charles S. Dutton) and a small staff of warders (Brian Glover and Ralph Brown) and Dr Clemens (Charles Dance). The company orders Ripley to sit tight and get picked up. But did an Alien on the ship lead to its crash? Is there now an alien on the planet? And is Ripley carrying an Alien inside of her?

It won’t surprise you to hear that the answers to all these questions are of course “yes”. And the film takes a painfully long time to get there. This is made all the more painful by the shockingly, uninvolving grimness of the story’s telling. Nowhere is this more clear than in the ruthless killing off of the surviving characters from Aliens. After the warmth and humanity of that story – and Cameron’s skilled creation of a family dynamic between Ripley, Hicks and most especially the mother-daughter bond between Ripley and Newt, it’s hard not to feel that their brutal off-screen deaths are a real slap-in-the-face. At a stroke all the character development of the previous film is negated. And so we get back on the treadmill of another monster hunt.

It’s not helped either by the fact there is hardly a character here you could give two hoots about. The prison is almost completely staffed by British character actors, peppered with the odd American. The script totally fails to give any of these people really distinctive personalities at all, before the Alien starts munching through them. On top of which the lazy script is littered with effing and jeffing, that serves to make the characters very angry all the time and even less engaging. The film’s most interesting new character, troubled Dr Clemens (a decent performance of world-weary sadness from Dance) is dead by Act Two, and the rest are basically an identikit pile of same-old-same-old. Dutton gets some good speeches as the prisoner’s morally complex leader, but he’s fighting an up-hill battle against turgid dialogue and tired old plotting.

Already by Alien 3 it feels like the franchise was out of ideas. Yet again “the company” is up to no good, only interested in making a buck off the creature. A post-industrial landscape again sees a number of people killed off in ever more familiar ways. The alien looks a bit like a dog this time (or an Ox if you watch the longer and even duller extended cut), but that’s about the most original thing here. And at the centre of the misery we have a grimly resigned and disinterested Weaver, who seemingly can’t wait for that Alien to burst out of her chest and end her association with the franchise for good.

It’s very hard to find anything enjoyable at all about this film. And it feels odd to say that about a film which is about people being brutally murdered one-by-one by an alien. But the others had touches of hope, humanity and demonic poetry to them. This is just a parade of slumming it British character actors, playing foul-mouthed rapists and murderers, getting torn apart. And then the film ends with a colossal downer even more downier than all the rest of the sludge you’ve had to sit through.

Basically Alien 3 reminds us that, with the monster as a motiveless killing machine, there weren’t many places to go with it. It’s not like it could suddenly reveal a motivation or something. So it seems the franchise was doomed – as it has been almost ever since this – to be a familiar parade of facehuggers, dark rooms, slow builds as people meander towards death down corridors, blood splatter and people who barely qualify as characters meeting grisily ends. Alien 3 is depressing and unrewarding in so many ways.

Amistad (1997)

Djimon Hounsou excels as a slave longing for freedom in Amistad

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Djimon Hounsou (Sengbe Pieh/Joseph Cinqué), Matthew McConaughey (Roger Sherman Baldwin), Anthony Hopkins (John Quincy Adams), Morgan Freeman (Theodore Joadson), Nigel Hawthorne (President Martin van Buren), David Paymer (John Forsythe), Pete Postlethwaite (William S Holabird), Stellan Skarsgård (Lewis Tappen), Razaaq Adoti (Yamba), Abu Bakaar Fofanah (Fala), Anna Paquin (Isabella II), Chiwetel Ejiofor (James Covey), Peter Firth (Captain Fitzgerald), Jeremy Northam (Judge Coglin), Xander Berkeley (Ledger Hammond), Arliss Howard (John C Calhoun)

After the American Revolution, independence left one issue in America that would profoundly split the country: slavery. This was a land divided, between abolitionists and plantation owners, the more emancipation-minded North and slave states of the South. Slavery was – and remains – the ugly stain on the American soul. Steven Spielberg’s film uses a significant court case of its day to shine a light on these contrasting and conflicting priorities in American society throughout much of the early 19th century, that would eventually lead to civil war.

The film tells the true story of the slave revolt on the Spanish slaver ship Amistad. Here the slaves, led by Joseph Cinqué (Djimon Hounsou) escaped captivity, rose up and killed most of the crew (leaving just two men alive to sail the ship) and tried to return to their home in Sierra Leone. Arrested by an American naval ship while collecting fresh water, the slaves are transported to Connecticut where they find themselves on trial as escaped slaves, facing charges of piracy and murder. Their cause is taken up by Northern abolitionists Lewis Tappen (Stellan Skarsgård) and his black associate Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), and their lawyer Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) a property lawyer. However, the case’s international implications for slavery attracts the concern of President Martin van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), eager to support the prosecution, while former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), a lawyer and opponent of slavery, offers his advice to the defence.

Spielberg’s film has just the right balance of human interest and humanitarian concern to overcome its slight air of a civics lesson. Although largely a courtroom drama, what the film is really trying to do is capture in one moment the troubling contradiction of the land of the free built on slaves, and give a voice and empathy to the slaves themselves. 

Although some have criticised this as a “white saviour” film, I feel that’s unfair. This is a film that starts and ends with Cinqué’s story and filters America through his perception. We can well understand why he rages at his lack of comprehension of laws that can be adjusted, court decisions overturned or how words can be twisted to take on other meanings. A film front and centred, say, by Matthew McConaughey’s Baldwin and focusing on journey from seeing this as just another case into a crusade would be a white saviour film. Instead the white characters drop in and out of the story as the narrative requires, and it’s the struggles and courage of the black characters that form the heart of the narrative.

Spielberg also brings to life the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery and what it does to all of us. The film opens with the confined, appalling conditions of the slave ship while Cinqué (with hands running with blood) tries to release a nail from the wood which he will use to free himself from his chains. The film intriguingly opens without the African characters being translated – giving us a sense of their isolation and perhaps also stressing how different they are from the Western “civilisation” that has taken them from their homes. 

It isn’t until half way through the film, until a translator is found for Cinqué, that the film gives us the backstory that Cinqué has struggled to communicate. Spielberg spares no punches in showing the violence of abduction, the brutality and casual slaughter of the slavers, the starvations, the floggings that end in blood sprayed death, the cramped conditions practically designed to weed out the weak. A mother chooses drowning for herself and her child rather than life on the ship. Later the slavers chain unwanted slaves to a bag of rocks and cast them overboard to reduce their cargo load. If there was any doubt about the heart-rending evil behind slavery, it’s removed from your mind.

It also serves to hammer home the injustice of America’s own system. Under political pressure – van Buren is worried about the reaction of both Spain and the Southern States to the Africans being found innocent – the trial encounters interference and appeals every step of the way. It’s a system that prides itself on being the greatest in the world, but shows time and time again how it can be weighted against the weakest. The courtroom scenes – skilfully directed and played – show time and time lawyers valuing obscure property laws above right and wrong. And we are brought time and time again to the reactions and lack of understanding of the African characters, who come from a society where there is no equivocation and no words equivalent to “usually” or “perhaps”.

The film perhaps does take a little too long over its various legal machinations, and could do with losing a few minutes here and there. But that would be to sacrifice its many strengths. Looking wonderful, with a marvellous score by John Williams (riffing on the American pipes and African tribal influences), one of the strongest acting companies Spielberg ever assembled does outstanding work. Carrying much of the film is Djimon Hounsou, who makes Cinqué anything but a victim – he is a proud, defiant and intelligent man, humble enough about his qualities but quick to act to defend his rights. Uncowed but infuriated by the situation he finds himself in, he is never a passenger but at all times a key figure in his own liberation, even if his legal case must be fought by whites.

McConaughey enjoys himself under a bad wig, glasses and dirty teeth as the lawyer Baldwin, ambitious but with more than an air of decency. Postlethwaite is at his quietly authoritative best as his opposition counsel. Freeman lends the film a large part of his grace and dignity in a small, observant part of the freed-slave turned abolitionist, with Skarsgård more political as his white colleague. Hawthorne makes a van Buren a slightly flustered, impatient figure. Peter Firth demonstrates a great contempt for slavery behind an imperious exterior.

The film’s highlight performance though is Hopkins’ Oscar-nominated turn as John Quincy Adams. Adjusting his physicality to match the ageing ex-President, Hopkins captures his slightly nasal Massachusetts twang and adds a significant amount of twinkly charm and wry shrewdness to this adept political operator. A large chunk of the film’s final 20 minutes is given over to Hopkins, with the highlight a long monologue of Adams speech to the Supreme Court (in actuality a speech over eight hours in length!), that is a tour-de-force of skilled showmanship. It’s Hopkins’ last great performance of the 1990s. 

Spielberg’s Amistad is a superb courtroom drama but also a heartfelt condemnation of the inhumanity man can show to man. It never forgets either that while this was a victory, it was only a skirmish not the war. While the film at times overplays the inevitability of Civil War (which did not exactly start over this issue), it skilfully shows the divide in the American culture between abolition and slavery – and how many felt for the first cause, but feared the supporters of the second so much they would rather not address it. Either way, Amistad may at times be a little dry – but that gives its moments of emotion even more force.

The Usual Suspects (1995)

The immortal gang in legendary twist thriller The Usual Suspects

Director: Bryan Singer

Cast: Stephen Baldwin (Michael McManus), Gabriel Byrne (Dean Keaton), Benicio del Toro (Fred Fenster), Kevin Pollak (Todd Hockney), Kevin Spacey (Roger “Verbal” Kint), Chazz Palminteri (Agent Dave Kujan), Pete Postlethwaite (Kobayashi), Suzy Amis (Edey Finneran), Giancarlo Esposito (Jack Baer), Dan Hedaya (Sergeant Jeff Rabin)

SPOILERS: If you have been living in a cave since 1995, don’t read on as I discuss the twist at great length…

“Convince me”. That’s what Customs Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) says as he begins his interrogation of limping, low-time crook “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey). That’s certainly what Kint does – and it’s what the whole film is aiming to do in this, the most famous confidence trick in movies. The Usual Suspects is one of those once-in-a-blue-moon films where everything comes together perfectly. It’s also a sleight-of-hand movie that remains hugely engaging and entertaining even when (as surely most people now do!) you know exactly what the magician has up his sleeve. Its solid gold entertainment factor even survives today, despite the slightly queasy presence of both Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer in its credits.

Told in flashback, the film follows the coming together of a bunch of regular criminals, pulled in for a line-up and deciding to team up. Along with Verbal, the others include McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Fenster (Benecio del Toro), Hockney (Kevin Pollak) and ex-cop turned criminal Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne). After a successful series of heists, the gang are conscripted by suspicious lawyer Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite) to take on a dangerous hijacking job for shadowy – possibly legendary – master criminal Keyser Soze, the bogeyman of the criminal classes. We know the job will go wrong – after all Verbal is banged up telling the whole story, the only survivor of the job – but how? And who is the shadowy Soze – or is he even real at all?

The Usual Suspects takes what you know about movies and then works double time to use it against you. With a structure inspired by classic noir crime films from the 1940s – the whole operation has a touch of The Asphalt Jungle while the interrogation has more than a hint of Double Indemnity – mixed in with a lot of Rashomon, it’s a movie that has you primed so much for a reveal and a twist that it skilfully misdirects you into expecting the wrong thing. Because how could you guess that perhaps the whole movie is a spun-out-of-the-moment invention by Verbal, and that possibly almost nothing we see during the course of its run time even happened. 

But how can we guess? From the very first scenes with Kujan and Verbal, Kujan is shot dominating the frame, always taller, always filling the screen. Verbal is sitting, meek, trapped by the frame, the camera frequently looking down at him. Every shot subliminally tells us that he is weak. The story has to be dragged out of him, with the investigation outside of the room forcing Verbal to expand on issues he doesn’t want to touch on. Like Kujan we invest in what we are finding out, because it looks like Verbal doesn’t want to tell it to us. That’s how they get you.

Because Verbal, in his story, is sprinkling in just the twist that Dave (and the audience) is probably expecting – that Gabriel Byrne’s Dean Keaton, the guy who claimed to have gone good, who just wanted out, was bad the whole time and was the criminal mastermind this whole time. Christopher McQuarrie’s ingenious script primes us for this: Dave Kujan is casting doubt on Keaton’s “death” right from the start, and as the audience surrogate figure we want to be as smart as he is. So what does it matter that we ”see” Keaton shot in the opening sequence of the film? Surely that was an illusion, and we’re as clever as Kujan in seeing through it.

The film even gives us a brilliantly assembled “reveal” series of edited flashbacks, in which every small moment and hint that has existed in the film is replayed for us (John Ottman’s editing is flawless here – and he should also have credit for composing the film’s hauntingly classical score) to convince us, beyond a shadow of a doubt that, yup, poor simple Verbal was taken in all the time by dastardly Keaton, the guy who looks like a film star. Only of course it’s bollocks. That charred corpse that Singer jump cuts to at the start of the film as police investigate the boat massacre is indeed Keaton. And the clever twist we thought we were working out, turns out to be a mass distraction laid out for us by Verbal and the film.

So we get a second brilliantly edited reveal sequence as it hits Kujan while he studies that most famous notice board in film, that everything he thought he had worked out had been spun out of hints and clues off the board – from asides and anecdotes to entire locations and characters. And Kevin Spacey limps and then walks away, shrugging off the skin of timid, weak Verbal to transform into the chillingly amoral Soze. It’s a trick that worked especially well when Spacey was an almost unknown actor at the time (today it’s less of a surprise to find out that Spacey could be a creep). There is possibly no better reveal in Hollywood.

But the film continues to entertain even when you know it because Singer’s film is stuffed with richly layered characters, scintillating scenes and some rich and spicy dialogue from McQuarrie. It’s a brilliant combination and provides every scene with a clear and electric dynamism that makes it impossible to tear your eyes away. There are some truly striking scenes – not least the iconic line-up scene – and the film carries an improvisational energy (that line-up scene is a magic use of outtakes, as the actors couldn’t keep a straight face during the sequence).

Part of the magic of it comes from the brilliant clash of a group of vastly different actors bouncing off each other: the self-consciously method Baldwin, the edgy energy of Pollack, the chilly technique of Spacey and the classically trained professionalism of Byrne, who pulls off with aplomb a difficult job of playing a decoy protagonist and antagonist in one. And that’s not mentioning the wild card of Del Toro who, working out his character was a one-note plot device, throws in an eccentric chic and impenetrable mumbling accent that is part affectation (the sort of thing that made the actor more trying later in his career) and part jaw-dropping show of confidence. And backing them up is a collection of actors as eccentric as Palminteri channelling Law and Order with a smile and Postlethwaite as a sinister limey lawyer with an accent that sounds like it hails from the Raj.

Singer’s direction is flawlessly confident, creating a rich tapestry that you could lazily call Tarantinoesque, but actually reminds you of John Huston in its carefully framed mise-en-scene. It’s a very classical movie in its way, that loves clever wipes, slow build ups, brilliantly edited and surprisingly low key in much of its framing and shooting. Everything is perfectly placed to help build up the illusion. Singer never touched these heights of confidence and control again. It’s also superbly edited throughout by John Ottman, each beat landing perfectly, each transition perfectly judged. It wouldn’t seem out of pace to see Cagney playing Kint (with Bogart surely as Keaton). 

The devilish trickiness of the plot is kept largely under wraps until late on – Soze isn’t even mentioned until nearly halfway through the film – and the film’s confident misdirection suggests this might just be the gang aiming too high and getting burned rather than a shadowy mastermind manipulating it all. It’s a brilliantly judged change of pace, and all part of the impish delight of the film. It’s a clever game, but has more than enough force and invention in its story telling to keep you gripped time and time again. McQuarrie and Spacey won Oscars – and the film hinges so much on Spacey’s ability to both tell an anecdote and also not push his acting lame – and the film lives on forever in the memory as one of the finest twists. But it does so because the twist grows so organically from the film, and the film’s delight in tricking you is completely infectious.

Inception (2010)

Leonardo DiCaprio caught between dreams and reality in Inception

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Dom Cobb), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Arthur), Marion Cotillard (Mal Cobb), Ellen Page (Ariadne), Tom Hardy (Eames), Ken Watanabe (Saito), Dileep Rao (Yusof), Cillian Murphy (Robert Fischer), Tom Berenger (Peter Browning), Pete Postlethwaite (Maurice Fischer), Michael Caine (Professor Stephen Miles), Lukas Haas (Nash), Tallulah Riley (Disguise woman)

What is reality? It’s a question that for many of us never comes up. But in the artificial and exciting world of film, it’s a legitimate question. These worlds we watch unspooling before us on the cinema screen, so large, so real, so exciting. Could we get lost in them? And how much do the films we love echo the dreams that fill our nights, the movies we create in our mind to keep our brain active during those hours of complete physical inactivity? And what happens when the world of imagination and possibility becomes more compelling, more comfortable – and perhaps more real – to us than the actual flesh-and-blood world around us? These are ideas tackled in Inception: the blockbuster with a brain. 

Set in some unspecified point in the not-too-distant future, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are “extractors”, shady corporate espionage experts who use experimental military technology to enter shared dream states with their targets. While in their dreams, they have complete access to their subconscious mind, where secrets can be extracted. A wanted man in the States, Cobb is forced to ply his trade despite his yearning to return home to his children. After a job goes wrong, their would-be target Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires the pair to take on a far more challenging role: rather than extract an idea he wants them to plant one – a technique called “inception” – into the mind of a business rival (Cillian Murphy) to get him to dismantle his father’s empire. To do the job, Cobb needs a new team, including dream “architect” Ariadne (Ellen Page), dream identity forger Eames (Tom Hardy) and dream compound chemist Yusof (Dileep Rao) – and needs to try and control his own dangerous subconscious version of his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) who is determined to destroy his missions.

Just a plot summary should give an idea of the twisty-turny world of imagination and ideas that Christopher Nolan mixes in with big budget thrills and excitements, in the most original sci-fi/philosophy film marriage since The Matrix. Of course it helps when you have the clout of having directed a hugely successful comic book series, but Nolan was brave enough to trust that an audience for this sort of action-adventure caper wanted to have their brains stretched as far as their nerves. So he creates a dizzying and challenging piece of escapism that plays around with the audience’s perceptions and understanding of the nature of dreams. 

In the world of dreams, the film is a fabulous tight-rope-walk of dazzling concepts. Here everything is possible, with Nolan throwing at us worlds from film fantasy: intricate Samurai houses, brawling third-world streets, luxurious hotels, Bond-style winter bases and entire cities that literally fold, bend and reinvent themselves around the film’s dreamers, worlds that defy conventional rules of physics and time. This world is presented with genuine visual panache at every point, Nolan’s mastery of the language of film leading to a sensational series of slight-of-hand tricks and compelling set-pieces, all the while making you question which events are real and which are dreams or even dreams within dreams. In these worlds, the characters have the ability to literally shape a world to meet their needs, and the dangerous attraction of these worlds – even if they are not real – is the dark temptation that hangs over every frame. 

Because it’s those ideas beneath the action that give the film depth as well as excitement, that ability to ask questions and openly invite the audience to begin theorising themselves to fill in any blanks. Within the world of Inception, characters can create dream states within dreams, to share one person’s dream while simultaneously all being inside the dream of someone else. These multiple levels are cleverly established as being as much of a risk for the characters in getting confused as they are for the audience, with the characters carrying personal “totems” to help them judge if what they are seeing is reality or not. This is made all the more difficult by the establishment that your subconscious will manifest people to populate the dream worlds – and these will turn on invaders they detect in the dream.

All of this tunnels down into the deep limbo of our subconscious – and also introduces as a concept Nolan’s fascination with time. In dreams, time moves at a different pace, and this differential becomes all the greater as you descend down levels in dreams within dreams. A few minutes can become an hour in a dream and become almost a day in the dream within it – and years within the dreams beyond that. This is brilliantly demonstrated by Nolan in the film’s dazzling central sequence as the film intercuts between three timelines in three different dreams – each impacting the other.

It’s another masterful touch – the impact of actions on dreamers’ bodies in the level above can be felt in their world. A slap to the face in the real world can send someone in the dream flying across a room. A bucketful of water turns into a tidal wave in the dream. The dreamer falling in the world above removes gravity in their dream (giving Joseph Gordon-Levitt a cult fight scene in a gravity free world that sees him gracefully leaping from floor to ceiling to wall). The visuals are extraordinary, but the intriguing logic of the inter-relation between reality and the dreams – and the way dreams struggle to explain external effects – lend all the more credence to the mixing of reality.

But then, as Nolan suggests, isn’t that film after all? In dreams we move from location to location and struggle to remember the journey in between. We find ourselves doing tasks and not knowing how we started. Chases, faulty logic, sudden reversals and changes – these are the rules of film, it’s editing slicing out the boring bits and focusing on the reality. We are dropped into the middle of Cobb’s story and only slowly find the backstory, a gun filled chase through an African city is almost indistinguishable from similar sequences in the dreams. The final sequence of the film is a purposefully cut series of images that are very true to the rules of film, but feel alarmingly close to the rules of dream (unsettling us about whether what we see at the end is truth or dream, a debate that continues today). It makes for fascinating stuff, as well as a commentary on film itself.

Nolan’s film is gloriously entertaining, even if in its haste at points it does fail to explain how certain events and concepts truly work – but doesn’t really matter so compelling is the journey. The cast, enjoying the chance to mix action hijinks with genuine characters and dialogue are very strong, with DiCaprio anchoring the film wonderfully as the conflicted, lonely, defensive and daring Cobb. Hardy made a name for himself in a cheekily flirtatious performance, which sparks wonderfully with Gordon-Levitt’s more po-faced Arthur. Page creates a character both naïve and at times almost gratingly intrusive. Cotillard makes a difficult balance look easy playing a character part real and part dream figure. Watanabe is archly dry as the investor. There isn’t a weak link in there.

It may at times move too fast and not always make itself completely clear. It might be a bit too long in places and take a little too long to make its point – but it’s ambitious, challenging, intriguing film-making that rewards repeated viewing. Not least with its cryptic ending in which we are forced to ask how much of what we have seen is real and whether – like Cobb perhaps? – we should even care at all if the end result is so positive. With the fascinating world of dreams – and the rules there that we encounter – it gives us a firm grounding for the its meditation of the dark attraction of fantasy, embodied by the genial wish fulfilment of the movies where adventure lies around each corner and the heroes triumph.

Solomon Kane (2009)

James Purefoy excels in cult-classic in the making Solomon Kane

Director: Michael J Bassett

Cast: James Purefoy (Solomon Kane), Max von Sydow (Josiah Kane), Pete Postlethwaite (William Crowthorn), Alice Krige (Katherine Crowthorn), Rachel Hurd-Wood (Meredith Crowthorn), Jason Flemyng (Malachi), Mackenzie Crook (Father Michael)

Solomon Kane was a pulp-magazine character from the 1920s. I’d never heard of him before – I imagine many others haven’t either – so bringing a film about him to the screen was always going to be a labour of love. That’s certainly what this film is. 

In 1600, Solomon Kane (James Purefoy) is a ruthless mercenary, but is confronted by a demon who tells him his soul is forfeit to the Devil. Horrified, Kane flees to sanctuary in a monastery, forsaking violence and devoting himself to God. After being expelled because the abbot has a dream, he encounters a Puritan family, the Crowthorns, and travels with them. Kane is deeply drawn to the Crowthorns – and when they are ambushed, the family killed, and daughter Meredith (Rachael Hurd-Wood) kidnapped by the servants of the sorcerer Malachi (Jason Flemyng), Kane swears to revenge the Crowthorns and rescue Meredith.

There’s something quite sweet and charming about Solomon Kane. It’s an old fashioned B-movie with a winning style. Is it going to rock any worlds? Probably not, but it’s got plenty of swagger and it makes a small budget go a long way. Bassett’s influences are pretty clear – everything from Witchfinder General to Lord of the Rings – but he shoots the film with a commendable energy. The visual flair is impressive, and successfully creates the feel of an England halfway between civilisation and the middle ages. Bassett also knows how to shoot an action scene, and the film is stuffed with fantastic sword fights that hit the right balance between brutality and dynamism.

Bassett also finds a fair amount of emotional heft in the story. The decision to focus a large chunk of the opening 45 minutes on Kane’s guilt and his attempts to make amends, make him a character we end up caring about. The “good family that wins our hero’s heart” cliché is exactly that, but it works very well here as Bassett takes his time and lets Kane’s bond with the Crowthorn family grow organically. All this patient establishment of Kane’s personality really pays off during the action of the second half.

It’s also helped a great deal by James Purefoy’s committed performance in the lead role. Purefoy has long since been a favourite of mine, who never really got the breaks to become a bigger star. His performance has the physicality and charisma, but Purefoy also adds in a Shakespearean depth to create a man desperate for redemption, carrying a pained heart very close to the surface. He dominates the whole film, setting the tone; and I suspect his dedicated performance encouraged fine work from the actors around him, despite almost all the other roles being little more than cameos. There are blockbusters whose leading actors are incapable of holding the screen as well as Purefoy does here.

Bassett’s B-movie spectacle is not perfect. The eventual explanation of why the Devil wants Kane’s soul is inexcusably garbled. Jason Flemyng is miscast as the demonic sorcerer Malachi, and his final confrontation with Kane lacks real impact (largely because Malachi has so little presence throughout the film) and devolves into a face-off with a dull special effects monster that looks rather like Megatron in the live-action Transformers films. There is a smaller-scale, personal ending in this film, but it gets crushed under the foot of the special effects. It’s a shame that a large portion of this film’s budget probably went on this.

Solomon Kane is structured, and plays, like a B-movie – but it’s proud of that. Its low budget demanded inventiveness and dedication from the cast and crew, all of whom delivered. The grimy design of the world is perfect, the story creates a good combination of action and emotion. Its story may be pretty clichéd, but it’s presented with great gusto – and has a terrific leading performance from a heavily under-rated actor in James Purefoy. More people deserve to see this – if this isn’t a cult classic in the making, I’m not sure what is.