Tag: Rachel Weisz

Black Widow (2021)

Scarlett Johansson crashes through a film that seems to exist by contractual obligation, Black Widow

Director: Cate Shortland

Cast: Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Florence Pugh (Yelena Belova), David Harbour (Alexei Shostakov), O-T Fagbenle (Rick Mason), Olga Kurylenko (Antonia Dreykov), William Hurt (Thaddeus Ross), Ray Winstone (General Dreykov), Rachel Weisz (Melina Vostokoff)

After the events of Captain America: Civil War, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run, when she receives a mysterious parcel from her “sister” – or rather the young girl she spent a few years with as a “family” of Russian agents undercover in America in the 1980s – Yelena Beloba (Florence Pugh). The parcel contains a drug that can be used to break the mind-control that nasty General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) has over his army of Widows: young girls like Natasha and Yelena, forced to become assassins in a torture chamber/training room called The Red Room. Natasha and Yelena team up to free the other assassins, but they will need the help of their “parents”, Russian super-soldier Shostakov (David Harbour) and genius inventor Melina (Rachel Weisz).

As the credits rolled on this formulaic slice of Marvel adventurism, I couldn’t for the life of me work out why it even existed in the first place. For a film centred around Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow character, I expected to come out of this epic with some new understanding of her character. Not only do we not learn anything about her at all, we get no additional insight into what makes her tick, no deeper look into her character. We learn nothing about her that we don’t know already: and the film isn’t even smart or profound enough to reflect on the fact that we all know that the character died in the last film we saw her in. Does it exist solely so Marvel can say “Look we made a film about the only female Avenger, so shut up already!”

The film is stuck between being a greatest hits celebration of Johansson’s work elsewhere and providing as much focus as possible for Florence Pugh to take up the mantle in future films. In fact, the focus is so much on Pugh – who is terrific and gets all the best lines – that Johansson becomes a bit of a straight-man in her own damn movie. It’s Black Widow who has to say all the unhip, dull things (“We can’t steal that car!”) while her sister snipes, swears and plays devil-may-care with the consequences. For what should be her moment in the sun, Johansson gets rather short-changed here. But then perhaps she didn’t really care – it certainly never feels that she had anything she was determined to say or do here, other than cash a huge cheque.

The film is framed around a back story of villainy involving the nasty Dollshouse-style assassin school that both sisters were forced to attend, here revealed to still be in operation with a team of brainwashed female assassins. At the centre, like a creepy Charlie with brain-washed Angels, is General Dreykov, played by a barely-even-trying Ray Winstone (his accent is laughably atrocious). Dreykov is such a peripheral figure in the film that he never feels like either a threat or a dark manipulative force and his “plan” is such an after-thought, Winstone has to hurriedly state it for the first time in a final act monologue.

The film is supposed to be about misogyny, and how Dreykov has left a poisonous legacy of abuse of young women for his own ends. This includes forcing his daughter (a thankless mute role under a helmet for Olga Kurylenko) into a killer robber-suit as the sort of uber-assassin. Natasha is plagued with guilt about harming this character in the past – a guilt that would have way more impact on the viewer if we had seen even one bloody scene of them together to establish a relationship. How much more interesting, too, would the film have been if we had seen Kurylenko’s character as the new head of this abusive ring of spies, having taken up her father’s mantle and absorbing his poisonous world view. But no, such nuances are beyond this film.

There are a few moments of emotion and comedy gained from Natasha’s fake family – the parents who are not her parents, the sister who is not her sister. This odd group reunion makes for some laughs, but its noticeable that the main emotional impact is on Pugh’s younger, less settled character rather than the confident, assured Natasha. It’s another major flaw in the film: at the end of the day, I can’t imagine this had any real impact on the character at all. Does Natasha really change her view of herself at the end? No: she talks the talk about having “a new family” but her level of connection with them (certainly with her parents) doesn’t seem to go much beyond patient affection. Again, the real emotional impact is on Pugh’s character who has finally found something to base her life on: this would have worked so much better as an origins story.

Instead, this seems to exist solely to answer a trivia question I’m not sure anyone was asking: “What did Black Widow do in between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War?” If your life really was lacking without the answer to that, this is the film for you. Otherwise, there is little at all to make any of this stand out from any of the other 20+ Marvel films. Its action scenes are cookie-cutter (naturally everywhere Natasha goes, the place is destroyed), the emotional beats are completely unrevealing, the baddie so forgettable you might even miss it when he dies, and we get a few actors (Harbour and Weisz) coasting on a couple of decent lines and bit of comic business. Apart from anything involving Florence Pugh, this film is totally and utterly forgettable.

Disobedience (2017)

Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams deal with love and faith in Disobedience

Director: Sebastian Lelio

Cast: Rachel Weisz (Ronit Krushka), Rachel McAdams (Esti Kuperman), Alessandro Nivola (Dovid Kuperman), Allan Corduner (Moshe Hartog), Bernice Stegers (Fruma Hartog), Anton Lesser (Rav Krushka), Nicholas Woodeson (Rabbi Goldfarb), Liza Sadoby (Rebbetzin Goldfarb)

After the death of her father, a highly respected member of a Jewish Orthodox community in London, photographer Ronit (Rachel Weisz) returns from New York for his funeral. Estranged from her father, due to her rejection of Orthodoxy, Ronit has been quietly forgotten by her community. She stays with old childhood friends, now married, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and Esti (Rachel McAdams) Kuperman. Dovid, her father’s chosen disciple, has been offered his place in the synagogue. Esti is a teacher at the local primary school. However, Ronit and Esti are more than just friends – their love for each other being the unspoken reason for Ronit’s departure.

Disobedience is a tender, thought-provoking exploration of the struggles between faith and love – or rather the longing to be a part of a community, that rejects a big part of who you are. While Ronit is our entry point into this world, the real tragedy here is Esti. Both a believer in Jewish Orthodoxy and a lesbian, Esti has struggled her whole life to find a balance between these two. While Ronit has, to a certain extent, chosen – deciding to leave her family life behind to allow some personal freedom for her bisexuality – Esti has remained and tried to reconcile the contradictions in her life.

What works really well about Disobedience is that it avoids moral judgements. The Orthodox community is never condemned or hold up backward or wicked. Those who live in it may be traditional, but they are not cruel. Ronit felt she had to leave, and there is an awkwardness around her return (and she is not mentioned in her father’s obituary), but apart from a few individuals, the community acknowledges her. This proves especially effectively as it allows the film to focus on a very tenderly drawn love-and-relationship triangle between the three leads, rather than scoring easier political or religious points.

It becomes a beautifully acted depiction of a three close childhood friends who are torn between affection, bitterness and longing for each other. In particular, the love between Ronit and Esti is immediately apparent, but also the tensions of confusion, missed opportunities and confused messages. These are two women deeply in love, but held apart by pressures of their community and conflicts in themselves. Between them falls Dovid, the loyal scholar of Orthodoxy, desperate to make his marriage to Esti work but also feeling a genuine affection to his adopted sister Ronit.

There is no easy answers to this mess – and the film looks carefully at questions of freedom, choice and free will. How can you reconcile your faith and the pressures of your community with the things you want in your heart? How do you compress the guilt when you feel you are forcing choices onto someone you love? How willing are we to sacrifice everything we have grown up with to make our own choices? You’d expect the answers to come down on the obvious sides, but instead Disobedience frequently operates in shades of grey and complex, messy realities. Its endings are open, its conclusions emotionally strong but not clear-cut. It reflects the ambiguity of life in its refusal to supply simple, reassuring endings.

The film is directed, in a muted palette, with great sensitivity and restraint by Sebastian Leilo. The camera has a wonderful eye for passing moments, for suppressed looks of affection. He uses long takes to allow his actors to relax into their performances, helping them create characters who feel extremely natural. The moment when Esti and Ronit finally surrender to their feelings to each other is shot with an urgency and intimacy – which then makes the restraint of much of the rest of the film all the more striking, as reality returns.

He also constantly surprises us, skilfully shifting perceptions from character to character. At first we feel that this is the story of the rebellious Ronit, but as the story progresses Esti emerges as a truly tragic figure, while Dovid is a man holding back huge waves of doubt and uncertainty about the rules that have defined his life.

The three lead actors are wonderful. Weisz is edgy, cagey and unapologetic about the air of rebelliousness she outwardly displays – but its clear that underneath she is full of regret, grief and a powerful sense of loss about the family and love she left behind. McAdams grows in statue from scene to scene as a woman who seems naïve but actually is all-too-aware of the compromises life demands – and has struggled all her life with sexual feelings alien to her culture. Nivola superbly turns a character who could have been an obstructive bore into a man who knows suffering deep down with the knowledge that his functional marriage based on duty will never bring him (or Esti) the happiness he desires.

Disobedience balances these three characters wonderfully. At times it luxuriates too much in its languid pace and stolen, lingering glances – a sense of urgency is often missing. But intelligent, sensitive, respectful and with a respect for faith that many other films would have avoided, it’s brilliantly played and sensitively directed.

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.

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.

Youth (2015)

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel try to embrace their past in Paolo Sorrentino’s mesmeric Youth

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

Cast: Michael Caine (Fred Ballinger), Harvey Keitel (Mick Boyle), Rachel Weisz (Lena Ballinger), Paul Dano (Jimmy Tree), Jane Fonda (Brenda Morel), Roly Serrano (Argentinian Footballer), Alex MacQueen (Queen’s emissary), Robert Seethaler (Luca Moroder), Ed Stoppard (Julian Boyle), Paloma Faith (Herself), Tom Lipinski, Chloe Pirrie, Alex Beckett, Nate Dern, Mark Gessner (Screenwriters)

Well this is something different. Youth is a hard to categorise film from Paolo Sorrentino. Sorrentino often seems the definition of (admittedly beautifully filmed) style over substance. But he’s also able to suggest great, unseen depth, a hard to define quality. Sometimes these qualities result in an impressive but frustratingly empty work. And sometimes it results in something simply wonderful. Youth falls firmly into the second category. In fact, it fits so firmly into this that I think it might be the most wonderful film Sorrentino has made. Put frankly, I loved this film. I can’t quite put my finger on why somehow, but I loved it.

It’s set in a Swiss retreat, peopled by the rich and famous. There are film stars, Miss Universe, famous pop stars and an overweight former Argentinian footballer (who could be anyone right?). Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is a world-famous composer, a man officially in retirement, uninterested in answering entreaties from the Royal Family to perform his famous “Simple Song #3” at Prince Philip’s birthday. He is accompanied by his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), who acts as his assistant, and struggles with her father’s difficult personality and her resentment towards him. Fred’s best friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a famous director, is also staying at the resort with a gang of screenwriters, preparing his script for what he intends to be his final film (his “testament”).

Youth is a film that conveys great depth and emotional strength, while never falling into any category or offering up clear answers or spoon-fed themes. Instead it explores, in a gentle way, age, disappointment, hope, lost opportunities and warm memories. It’s nominally a film about old people reflecting on their youth, but it’s also full of moments that show these characters still have moments of vibrancy. In a beautiful moment, the footballer (barely able to get himself out of a pool without oxygen) carries out a series of beautifully skilful keepie-uppies with a tennis ball for over a minute, before he wheezes and has to stop. That’s kinda the whole film right there in an image: age and youth all in one go. It’s beautiful. I loved it.

Sorrentino loves the flashy shot, and carefully framed image. This film is full of them, and they work wonderfully well. It’s sprinkled throughout with gorgeous dream sequences and fantasy moments, from Boyle seeing a field full of his leading ladies past, to Lena dreaming of a hilariously overblown music video showing her unfaithful husband (a slimy Ed Stoppard) and Paloma Faith (a very good sport) undulating over a speeding car. We see Fred sitting in a field conducting a semi-imaginary orchestra of cows with bells. Imaginative shots are sprinkled throughout, everyday things seen from new and unique angles. 

And its so emotionally fulfilling, filled with both lump-in-the-throat moments and moments of searing, magical hope and joy. It explores what matters to us as we get old – and how what matters to us in our lives changes as we age. Sometimes these things remain the same, sometimes we move with the times. Sometimes we adjust, and sometimes we don’t. It’s a film where some characters struggle to recall events, others reinterpret their lives as they happen. You could criticise the film for not having a clear central theme, but its theme if anything is life – and life is not easy to categorise. It’s a mountain of different moments and attitudes: and that is what this film likes. It’s messy and hard to predict. And it’s strangely beautiful. 

So Sorrentino crafts a feast of a film here, crammed full of dialogue that should be almost too weighty and overtly “important”, but somehow never comes across like that. It’s partly because it’s delivered with such experienced, lightly worn skill, but also because Sorrentino pulls off the trick of positioning it as profound rather than overbearing. Shot with a gentle, elegiac expressiveness, it’s a film that brilliantly works, that conveys and carries great weight. It’s about the human condition, and it feels real and human at all times.

It also helps that it’s superbly acted. There isn’t a dud performance here – and some give some of the most beautiful work of their career. Michael Caine takes a few minutes to accept as a world famous composer (something about him just doesn’t quite work), but you quickly let it go because he is astonishingly good here. Caine’s Fred carries great reserves of regret and loss, but also many memories of joy. Caine is beautifully expressive – part observer, part driver of the action. He has the wonderful air of being young-old and an old-young-at-heart. He’s playful but also tired. He’s strangely unknowable but at times open. It’s a beautiful performance.

Just as good is Harvey Keitel. The film is full of these two guys – like Stadler and Waldorf – moaning about getting old. But Keitel brings a great tragic depth to Boyle, a great director fallen on hard times, a man whose best days may well be behind him but who refuses to let the light die. He’s both funny and (by the end) incredibly moving. Rachel Weisz is radiant as Lena – a scene where she finally lets years of anger out is wonderful – but another late scene as she quietly weeps with a sort of sad joy is simply superb. She has a gentle romance that builds with real sweetness. She’s impossible to look away from in this, she’s brilliant.

Youth also has moments where it explores the nature of art and its legacy. Ballinger feels he is probably a good-but-not-great composer. Boyle feels there are moments he touched greatness, but is never sure if it’s there or not. Paul Dano plays a great stage actor who is known worldwide for his role as a robot in a Star Wars style smash. What is art? The film doesn’t dare to answer the question, but it does ask what are artists? How do they question themselves? Why do they do what they do? Artists in this film are always watching – even the footballer – they are always looking to become a part of their world or comment on it. 

Sorrentino’s film is marvellous. I really loved it. It’s crammed full of brilliant moments. Even Jane Fonda’s overblown cameo as a film star works (I think just). It’s played with such brilliancy, structured with such light playfulness, that it is able to carry great depth and grace. It’s a film that rewards reviewing – I’m not sure I’ve worked out the implications of the final shot, or what it might mean for how we should interpret Ballinger’s final actions – and I can’t wait to see it again.

Enemy at the Gates (2001)

Jude Law takes aim in wonky Stalingrad drama Enemy at the Gates

Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud

Cast: Jude Law (Vasily Zaytsev), Joseph Fiennes (Commisar Danilov), Rachel Weisz (Tania Chernova), Bob Hoskins (Nikita Khrushchev), Ed Harris (Major Erwin König), Ron Perlman (Koulikov), Eva Mattes (Mother Filipovva), Gabriel Marshall-Thomson (Sasha Filippov), Matthias Habich (General Friedrich Paulus)

The Second World War in film almost always focuses on the heroics of the Western Front, where the rights and wrongs are usually pretty clear (the Western powers are noble, the Nazis savage). So it’s different to set a film on the Eastern front – where the Second World War was arguably really won and lost, and where morality is much more complex. The Nazis are terrible, but Stalin’s Russia was no picnic either.

Stalingrad in 1942: Soviet tactics involve giving every other man a gun, and ordering the second man to follow his partner and take his gun when he is killed. Witnessing the sharpshooting skills of young soldier Vasily Zaytsev (Jude Law), political Commissar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) decides to turn him into the romantic hero the Soviets need to help inspire them. He’s so successful in doing so that the Germans send their own expert sniper, Major König (Ed Harris), to find and kill Zaytsev. Meanwhile, the friendship between Danilov and Zaytsev becomes complicated when they both fall in love for the same woman, sharpshooter and German translator Tania Chernova (Rachel Weisz).

It’s quite something for a film to be denounced by both sides of the war it’s depicting: this probably means it’s doing something right, as it doesn’t deny the hellish atrocities carried out on both sides (even if many of these are implied). The real reason to be outraged is probably more to do with its general flatness and shoving of the great battle into the standard war-movie clichés. There are some attempts to suggest what we are seeing is a true story, but other than a man called Zaytsev existing, there is very little of truth on show. Instead we get a Hollywood view of Soviet Russia: where the characters we like are regular joes, while the ones we don’t are full-on Commie zealots.

The film starts well, with an extended sequence that follows Zaytsev and several other soldiers boarding boats, crossing the river, arriving in Stalingrad and being marched immediately into the front line. Half the men are killed – the fleeing remainder are swiftly machine gunned by their officers for cowardice. It brings back memories of Saving Private Ryan and, while not as good, gives the impression we are going to see a “horrors of war” film – which the film doesn’t turn into.

Instead we get an increasingly melodramatic plotline around love triangles and sniper duels that never really feels like Russian lives at the time. In fact, the film fails to capture any real sense of Soviet Russia, other than its dirt and ruthlessness. Danilov and Zaytsev celebrate their newfound fame with a sort of giddy laddishness that just doesn’t fit any Russian’s understanding of what being noticed in Soviet Russia would surely mean. When the film does try to sound Soviet it stumbles: there is a painful (unintentionally) funny moment when Zaytsev talks about his dream job to be working in a factory, because factory work seems so noble.

The love triangle also seems ripped from Mills and Boon. Not a lot of it rings true, with Danilov turning into some sort of jealous head-boy. The romance blossoming between Zaytsev and Tania can’t decide whether it’s two souls coming together, or whether it has the air of a “last romance” with death around the corner. So it’s either overblown and overplayed, or not given enough room to build. It doesn’t help that there are a number of strange choices – not least a sex scene where Rachel Weisz seems more uncomfortable and in pain than in the throes of passion.

Maybe it’s that none of the performances of the lead actors feels either particularly Russian or soldierly. Jude Law fails to convince as a man from peasant hardship. He’s also saddled himself with a wooden “peasant” accent that not only makes Zaytsev sound like a mockney chancer, but also sound like a worse actor than he is. Joseph Fiennes is more school prefect than Soviet Commissar. Rachel Weisz is the most natural of the three, but her character makes little real sense: sometimes she’s gung-ho, others she talks about wanting this war to end. None of these actors really brings the right charisma needed – in particular Law looks as overwhelmed by the events around him as Zaytsev claims to feel.

The film belongs to the sniper sequences, and the duel of wits that develops between Zaytsev and König. Ed Harris’ part is as limply written as the rest, but Harris has a movie star charisma the others lack, and suggests a great deal of reserved arrogance and professional coldness. He’s the best thing about the movie. Annaud shoots the slow-burn waiting of sniping with a tension – and the film rather bravely stresses König’s superiority time and time again. As the film zeroes in on these two men trying to outmatch each other, it feels like it’s about something – and also that it’s relieved to leave the war at large behind.

Because for a film set in the Eastern Front, this feels unnerved by there being right and wrong on both sides. It even feels squeamish about sniper shooting. After his initial display of skill, we literally don’t see any sniper work from Zaytsev again – the “cowardly” killing from a distance of regular German soldiers is handed out to other characters. Russians are sorted into good and bad, with the good showing they are “just like us” by quietly denouncing their government. König can’t just be a professional, but the film has to try and nudge him into being a cold-hearted killer. It’s a film about the complex morality of war, that wants to make it as simple as possible.

It’s still well-made, but you wish that more time had been directed towards the script, to give us a story that was slightly better and characters that felt a bit more real. James Horner supplies a decent score (interestingly it also shows how much of film music is re-used, as key refrains in this film are strongly reminiscent of Willowand Troy). But the lead actors are all miscast (Bob Hoskins isn’t much more convincing as a bulldog Khrushchev) and it feels like a film that’s running away from a complex series of issues to try and present something as close as possible to goodies vs. baddies. The War on the Eastern Front was a hugely complex thing: this film hardly scratches the surface.

My Cousin Rachel (2017)

Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin in a dance of romance and suspicion in My Cousin Rachel

Director: Roger Michell

Cast: Rachel Weisz (Rachel Ashley), Sam Claflin (Philip Ashley), Iain Glen (Nick Kendall), Holliday Grainger (Louise Kendall), Simon Russell Beale (Court), Pierfrancesca Favino (Enrico Rainaldi), Andrew Havill (Parson Pascoe), Andrew Knott (Joshua)

Did she? Didn’t she? That’s the key phrase this deliberately ambiguous film returns to again and again. Is Cousin Rachel a serial schemer, seductress and possible murderer? Or is she just – well I guess just really unlucky? It’s a difficult line to tread –ambiguity is extremely challenging to bring to film, as it’s a medium that’s pretty decisive in what it shows us first-hand. But My Cousin Rachel pulls this off with a creepy aplomb.

At some point in the 1830s, Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin) receives a letter from his cousin and guardian Ambrose, who has recently passed away in Italy. The letter obliquely accuses Ambrose’s wife, his cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz), whom Philip has never met, of poisoning Ambrose. As Ambrose died before he could prepare a new will, Philip inherits his estate – but still harbours a rage against Rachel, suspecting her of murder. However, when Rachel comes to stay with him, Philip finds himself increasingly drawn towards, and besotted with, her.

Roger Michell gracefully directs and writes this intriguing little mood piece, a fine chamber-piece thriller. With an unsettlingly lyrical score and shot with a beautiful eye for the Cornish countryside, My Cousin Rachel not only grips, but rings true with anyone who has either (a) fallen blindly in love, (b) suffered from romantic obsession or (c) been paralysed with jealousy. Which is probably just about everyone.

The film relies for its success largely on Rachel Weisz’s exceptionally intelligent and thoughtful performance as Rachel. She looks perfect for the role – she’s both the sort of woman men would fall wildly in love with, and old enough to settle into an unsettling, semi-incestuous flirtation with Philip. Her performance works because Weisz plays the part with exceptional skill, never tipping the wink to the audience, but skilfully modulating and adjusting her performance with every scene so that you remain as uncertain about her actions and motives as anyone else.

Apparently Weisz made her own mind up on Rachel’s guilt and innocence, but never told Michell or Claflin. Intriguing to think that while they shot scenes of domesticity or passion, that only one of those involved really knows what’s happening – a mood that totally carries across to the viewer. Weisz plays the part with complete strength of conviction and straightness – every scene is played as if the feelings in it were completely true and bereft of manipulation. She makes it unreadable, while having a face overflowing with emotion and feeling. Does she understand Philips feelings early and manipulate him? Or does she genuinely not expect his romantic intentions?

Michell skilfully shows how Rachel wins over people with ease. Even the dogs immediately gravitate towards her. Parson Parscoe and his family flock around her. Philip’s servants smarten themselves up and make every effort to make a good impression on her. His godfather Nick seems to oscillate continually in his judgement of her, but even he seems powerless in her presence. The camera carefully hovers and focuses in on Rachel, with many shots focusing on her face alone – seducing us as much as the rest of the characters. We almost never see her except in scenes with Philip – so we have the same information as he does for making our minds up.

Sam Claflin is equally key to the film as Philip. In many ways Philip is quite the whiny teenager – you could easily dismiss him as a romantic young idiot, an obsessive would-be Romeo, who makes a series of terrible decisions through listening to his penis rather than his head. But despite that –/ perhaps because his errors and mistakes seem so universal – it’s easy to sympathise with him. Rather than want to slap him anger, you want to do so in frustration – “don’t do that, you idiot!” Michell and Claflin play his increasing disintegration brilliantly. Is it poison? Or is it his increasing jealousy and obsession unhinging him? Who hasn’t been involved in an unequal romantic obsession?

It’s not a perfect film. Philip’s obsession with Rachel is alarmingly sudden – perhaps too sudden. Towards the end, Michell becomes slightly too enamoured with mystery – a final, lingering shot introduces an element of uncertainty about a character we have never had cause to suspect, which feels like a little too much. At times the lingering camera seems to be trying to suggest more in the performance than Weisz seems willing to give away.

But these are quibbles. The film is well-directed and filmed, and terrifically acted – Glen and Grainger are very good in key supporting roles – but it’s a triumph for Rachel Weisz. Weisz seems like an actor it’s easy to overlook, maybe because she has never quite got the star vehicles her talent matches – but this film is a clear reminder that, at her best, she is an extremely gifted performer.

Denial (2016)

Timothy Spall as Holocaust denier David Irving in this misfiring courtroom drama

Director: Mick Jackson

Cast: Rachel Weisz (Deborah Lipstadt), Tom Wilkinson (Richard Rampton), Timothy Spall (David Irving), Andrew Scott (Anthony Julius), Jack Lowden (James Libson), Caren Pistorius (Laura Tyler), Alex Jennings (Sir Charles Gray), Mark Gatiss (Professor Robert Jan van Pelt), Harriet Walter (Vera Reich), John Sessions (Professor Richard J. Evans)

In 2000, historian David Irving (here played by Timothy Spall) was exposed as a Holocaust denier who forged and distorted historical records to help his pro-Hitler agenda. This came after his unsuccessful attempt to sue American historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) for accusing him of Holocaust denial in her book Denying the Holocaust. The decision led to the destruction of Irving’s reputation, career and financial wealth. This film tells the story of this case. Lipstadt’s legal team are played by Andrew Scott (solicitor Anthony Julius), and Tom Wilkinson (barrister Richard Rampton). The publicity-hungry Irving famously acted as his own lawyer.

Denial has a fascinating story at its core, but bungles it by getting the focus wrong. Now I’ll admit I might know more about this trial than the regular guy-on-the-street. But the drama here was in the detail of the debunking of Irving’s denier bullshit. The film benches most of this, reducing Irving’s career of historical re-adjustments into a few simple sound bites. The fascination of this trial was the dissection of denier myths – but the film aims for more conventionally “drama”, by introducing a series of “could Irving win?” moments that never ring true. Not only does this detract from the drama – it also, arguably, makes it easier for Holocaust deniers out there to claim the film doesn’t give the appallingIrving a fair crack of the whip.

It’s a shame, as when the focus is on the facts of the case, it’s very good. Tom Wilkinson is excellent as the maverick Rampton, whose abrasiveness hides his humanitarianism. The drama skirts over the trial’s cut and thrust, but when it does tackle these moments it’s very interesting. The sequence where Rampton pins Irving to the floor over theories that the gas chambers were de-lousing stations for dead bodies (“then why are there bolts on the outside of the doors?”) or air raid shelters (“are we to imagine the SS running 2.5 miles from their barracks to a shelter in an air raid?”) are compelling, and far more interesting than anything else in the film. Even the Cliff’s Notes version of Irving and his views in this film is enough to repulse any sane viewer, and watching him skewered on the witness stand is fascinating and satisfying. There just isn’t enough of it.

One of the film’s greatest problems is pushing Lipstadt front and centre. This seems logical on paper but, as her lawyer says, “this trial is happening to you, it’s not about you”. Lipstadt was deliberately not part of the trial strategy, to keep the focus on Irving. But the film can’t accepts her “story” was to do nothing. It keeps wanting to give her a ‘Hollywood moment’, but the facts can’t provide one – so we get lots of scenes of Lipstadt jogging, or feeding her dog, or watching news reports – time that could have been much better spent elsewhere.

Despite this, Weisz’s performance is very good –she bravely makes Lipstadt prickly and hard to like . Similarly, Andrew Scott is excellent as Julius, but his character is poorly explained (“He’s using you for the publicity” Lipstadt is told – we see no indication for this anywhere) and his decision to exclude Holocaust survivors from the witness list to prevent them being harangued by Irving is botchily explained, the film not wanting to admit that this was a wise decision.

I feel a lot of the film ended up on the cutting room floor. Short scenes pop up now and again around paralegal Laura making you feel she must have been a more important character at some point. I feel huge parts of courtroom reconstruction got trimmed. I suspect there was more around Harriet Walter’s Holocaust survivor. Even Irving feels heavily trimmed – Spall is very good (and subtly vile, but with a persuasive old school charm) as the faux-historian, but the film needs more of him, if only to explore his views more, rather than just treating him like a demon.

That sums the film up: it’s ham fisted. Too much dialogue thunkingly introduces historical events or legal procedures. The film talks about the importance of research, but relies on characters “cracking the case” with flashes of inspiration. It handles the research trip at Auschwitz sensitively (and daringly, shows Rampton taking an aggressive questioning stance of the guides to prepare for the case) – but then the film can’t help throwing in Lipstadt imagining victims clawing at the gas chamber door for escape. I hated the final shot, lingering on the disputed holes in the gas chamber roof used to drop in Xyklon-B, as if we needed this to be confident that, yes, the Holocaust did happen.

I really wanted to like Denial, but it’s no more than an adequate dramatisation of a fascinating court case. It’s brilliantly acted, in particular the four principles. There is an interesting film to be made here about the increasing struggle we have with the abuse of free speech to give equal importance to views that are offensive or just plain wrong. But Denial never really becomes that film – instead it turns its fascinating historical event into a run-of-the-mill Hollywood tale of a plucky heroine vanquishing the bad guy.

The Mummy (1999)

Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz face off against their undead nemesis in The Mummy

Director: Stephen Sommers

Cast: Brendan Fraser (Rick O’Connell), Rachel Weisz (Evie Carnahan), John Hannah (Jonathan Carnahan), Arnold Vosloo (Imhotep), Kevin J O’Connor (Beni Gabor), Jonathan Hyde (Dr Allen Chamberlain), Oded Fehr (Ardeth Bay), Erick Avari (Dr Terrence Bey), Patricia Velasquez (Anck-Su-Namun), Omid Djalili (Warden Gad Hassan)

The Mummy came out so many years ago that it’s being “rebooted” again as a Tom Cruise vehicle, as part of a Universal “Monsters Cinematic Universe” (oh dear God, even writing it sounds terrible). I’ve no idea what the new Mummyis like, but I am pretty certain it won’t match this film for fun, excitement, wit or (most of all) honest, gee-shucks B-movie charm.

In ancient Egypt, High Priest Imhotep is cursed and buried alive after his affair with Pharaoh’s mistress; should he rise again, he will do so as an unstoppable monster. Flash forward to 1926 and adventurer Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) is hired by Egyptologist Evie Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) and her chancer brother Jonathan (John Hannah) to guide them to the hidden city of Hamunaptra. There, in competition with a rival American team of explorers, they find the body of Imhotep, read aloud from the book of the dead, bring Imhotep back to life – and all hell breaks loose.

I’ll say it straight out: I think you’ve got to have a pretty hard heart not to have a soft spot in it for The Mummy. Tonally, it’s one of the few Hollywood family-action films that doesn’t have any major miss-step. It’s a silly, rather warm-hearted, B-movie action with intensely likeable leads and a series of entertaining set-pieces. Every frame has been shot and framed like an epic, old-school adventure movie – and the plot knowingly runs with its clichés. It’s a film with literally no pretensions, which embraces its status as a piece of entertainment. And, I’d say, it succeeds magnificently at doing that.

It’s helped by a hugely charming performance from Brendan Fraser as a combination of Indiana Jones and Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. Fraser’s got the chiselled good looks, but also a great deal of timing. The film gives him plenty of bon mots (“Patience is a virtue” Evie cries while decoding hieroglyphics; “Not right now it isn’t” Rick replies, staring at the hordes of possessed Egyptians heading their way) and he delivers them with a perfect 1930s matinee idol charm. It also helps that he has terrific chemistry with Rachel Weisz.

Weisz plays her part with a sweet comic charm, but adds a growing toughness to the character that prevents her from being a damsel in distress. John Hannah is pretty good value as her comic relief brother, while Oded Fehr makes such a great impression in limited screentime as the representative of a group of ancient guardians, you are surprised he hasn’t had more opportunities since then. Arnold Vosloo plays the Mummy with a tinge of sadness round the edges that humanises a man who is literally a monster.

Stephen Sommers directs the film with a witty sense of visual humour. This ranges from the obvious comedy (a 360 shot that takes in Evie knocking over a series of bookcases) to the satirical (he has a lot of fun with the gun-toting, ill-fated American explorers throughout the film). He also keeps the film barrelling along, without overlooking opportunities for character development. Despite the constant stream of action beats you always feel you understand exactly what motivates Rick and Evie – and their growing attraction to each other feels carefully developed.

Perhaps in a way The Mummy shows how films have changed in the last 17 years. When it was released, it was denounced as a big, dumb action film. However, compared to some of the fast-cut, poorly scripted rubbish churned out now, it looks rather sweet, well structured and focused more on character than on effects. As such it’s a really enjoyable and charming film, miles head of crap like Batman vs. Superman. Release exactly the same film today and I think many would call it a breath of fresh air, without the wearying self-important tone that weighs down so many modern blockbusters.

No it’s not a work of genius and no it’s not perfect. Omid Djalili’s character sails perilously close to racial stereotype. The killing scarab beetles in particular sometimes go marginally too far for its family audience. The special effects look a bit dated at points. Logically of course the plot barely stands up to thinking about: who on each curses someone with a terrible curse that makes them invincible and immortal? Why not just punish Imhotep by killing him badly eh?

Sommers is no master film maker – later Mummy films would largely fail to recapture this magic – but when he gets his boys-own, B-movie style bang-on, as he does here (and in The Rocketeer), he is a wonderful entertainment merchant, who makes engaging, entertaining films. No it’s not going to win any awards or trouble any top ten lists, but it’s always going to put a smile on your face.

The Bourne Legacy (2012)

Even with two guns and Jeremy Renner’s face, Aaron Cross isn’t that interesting

Director: Tony Gilroy

Cast: Jeremy Renner (Aaron Cross), Rachel Weisz (Dr Marta Shearing), Edward Norton (Col. Eric Byer), Stacy Keach (Adm. Mark Turso), Dennis Boutsikaris (Terrence Ward), Oscar Isaac (Outcome #3), Joan Allen (Pamela Landy), Albert Finney (Dr Albert Hirsch), David Strathairn (Noah Vosen), Scott Glenn (Ezra Kramer), Donna Murphy (Dita Mandy), Michael Chernus (Arthur Ingram), Corey Stoll (Zev Vendel), Željko Ivanek (Dr Donald Foite), Elizabeth Marvel (Dr Connie Dowd)

What do you do when the people want more sequels to your film series but you can’t persuade the star and director (no matter how much money you offer) to make another film? Well you can either re-cast or you can put another character front and centre in a sequel. The Bourne Legacy goes for the latter approach and invents a new series of characters and shady CIA programmes so that we can put the old chase-and-fight formula back to work.

Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) has been mentally and physically enhanced as part of a series of CIA black ops, overseen by shady CIA bigwig Ed Norton. After the events of Bourne Ultimatum (which overlap with the first quarter of this film), the CIA cuts its losses and orders the deaths of all the agents (including Cross) and the scientists (including Rachel Weisz’s Dr Shearing). Of course both Cross and Shearing survive and go on the run. Despite the writing tying itself into knots to connect its story to the previous films, that’s the sum of the plot. Hardly gripping.

This strange historical curiosity spends the first half of its running time attempting to justify its existence. Extensive narrative hoops are jumped through and new footage carefully interwoven with clips from the previous two movies to try and suggest “a plot behind the plot”. It’s a mistake. No one needs to know why the film exists: we just want to get on with a cracking story. Instead we spend an inordinate amount of time unravelling this “sidequel” attempt at franchise expansion, meandering around unengaging and complex plotting that totally fails to engage the interest.

So long winded are these plotting gymnastics, it’s a good two-thirds of the way into the film before our villain becomes aware of our hero’s survival. Our hero never becomes aware of the villain (an unclear flashback is put into place so they share the screen) and only guesses at who is chasing him. This means the chase elements of the film never really click into place and lack anything for the viewer to invest in. The “hero” is an assassin whose objective is to keep hold of his enhanced intellect, obtained from drugs on the “programme”. Well good for him, but its hardly a sympathetic reason for us to root for him. He’s still an unrepentant killer.

This isn’t helped by the giggle-worthy flashback scenes of Jeremy Renner in his pre-enhanced state, where Renner seems to be aping Ben Stiller’s performance of Simple Jack in Tropic Thunder. In his enhanced state, Cross is fully aware he is an assassin and a willing volunteer – embracing the very dark secret Bourne was so ashamed of. Neither Cross nor Shearing ever have their actions questioned, or display any sense that they have done anything wrong – it seems clear that they would have continued their dirty deeds quite happily without the plot’s intervention. It’s fine to have morally compromised heroes in a film – but this film doesn’t seem to realise or comment on this at any point.

Whatever your views on the characters, the fact remains that this is a chase movie where the chase is not interesting, takes far too long to get started and never really gets the viewer feeling the tension. As an editor of action, Gilroy is no Paul Greengrass and the fight sequences have the same cold distance to them that the rest of the film has, a by-the-numbers series of clashes where it’s hard to really care what happens.

A brilliant cast of actors is totally wasted. Poor Jeremy Renner does his very best here – he has charm, he’s a charismatic performer, but this is a dull character who we are given no real reason to invest in. Rachel Weisz plays the sort of damsel distress (matched up with the “film scientist” trope) an Oscar winner surely can do without. Edward Norton as with so many other films makes his contempt and boredom with the film totally apparent. Allen, Finney and Straitharn have little more than single scene cameos. A host of great character actors (Isaac, Marvel, Stoll, Ivanek, Keach, Murphy) are totally wasted.

This is a dull, formulaic, unloved sequel that spends more time trying to place itself into the timeline of the previous movies than developing a storyline and characters we actually care about. It moves slowly from location to location, sprinkling in some inadequately filmed fights and chases, never once persuading us that we should care about anything that happens.