Tag: Ralph Fiennes

The Menu (2022)

The Menu (2022)

Dark satire is mixed with intelligent character work and a challenge to our assumptions in this intriguing film

Director: Mark Mylod

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Julian Slowik), Anya Taylor-Joy (Margot Mills), Nicholas Hoult (Tyler Ledford), Hong Chau (Elsa), Janet McTeer (Lilian Bloom), John Leguizamo (Famous Actor), Reed Birney (Richard Liebbrandt), Judith Light (Anne Leibbrandt), Paul Adelstein (Ted), Aimee Carrero (Felicity), Arturo Castro (Soren), Rob Yang (Bryce), Mark St Cyr (Dave)

A dash of Succession. A soupcon of Hannibal Lector. Lashings of The Most Dangerous Game. All these ingredients are mixed to delightfully dark comic effect in The Menu, a sharp and tangy assault on class and modern society which leaves an unusual but satisfying taste in the mouth.

First those touches of The Most Dangerous Game. Julian Slowick (Ralph Fiennes) is a restauranteur so exclusive, his restaurant is based on a private island. Each course, of each menu is part of an overall story that forms the meal. For the story of the meal he is currently preparing, Slowick has selected an exclusive guest list of the rich and famous: businessmen, the rich, movie stars, food critics – the elite, the snobbish, the 1%. And the story he is serving up is one of increasingly grim retribution for this table-load of takers not givers. The only unexpected figure there is Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), last-minute guest of obsessive food purist Tyler (Nicholas Hoult). How will this unexpected fly in the soup affect Slowick’s plans for the evening?

The Menu in many ways is a revenge satire. Slowick does not hold back in his increasing fury and bitterness at the people he serves without appreciation or gratitude in return. His customers are interested only in food if it costs a lot and is exclusive. They have no interest in his actual skills, in the staff (whose names they do not remember), the food itself or anything beyond their own desires. Many of the customers – most hideously a trio of “bro” investors (played with slapable smugness by Castro, Yang and St Cyr) – flash their jobs and cash expecting these to ensure their every whim is met. To them the world is like dough to be shaped into whatever bread they want it to be.

The film – with glee – exposes the hideous selfishness of the rich customers. A rich couple (Birney and Light) who have attended Slowick’s restaurants several times yet remember nothing about the food or the staff. Janet McTeer’s elite food critic, who practically scratches marks into her pen to mark the restaurants she has closed (she’s accompanied by a fawningly obsequious editor, played by Adelstein). A famous actor (John Leguizamo) who has long-since sold-out and treats his fans with contempt, joined by his spoilt rich-girl assistant/girlfriend (Aimee Carrero). Each of them is deconstructed in turns by Slowick over a series of courses parodying the snobbish bizarreness of high-class dining.

And here is where those touches of Succession make themselves known in the flavour. That series – and Mylod is a veteran (and its finest director) – also presents the ghastly shallowness and greed of the super-rich to expert comic effect. But what that show also does – and what Mylod brilliantly manages here – is make what could be two dimensional monsters sympathetic. The Menu presents these dreadful people with honesty; but, as the punishments – cruelly personal reveals, psychological torture, a finger cut off here, a man hunt there – pile up, you start to wonder if the punishment is too much?

The “bro” investors may be dreadful selfish, arrogant, dick-swinging morons: but they are also immature idiots who have never really grown up. The rich couple might treat places like this elite restaurant as a God-given right, but does that really deserve death? The food critic is harsh and arrogant, but is writing cruel words a mortal sin? The actor loathes himself for selling out his talent to make money and his girlfriend has simply been born into money and never wanted for anything. Do these people really deserve the monstrous ends Slowick has planned for them?

It’s the smartness of The Menu which could easily have invited us to just enjoy the rich and powerful being exposed, humiliated and punished. Instead, this is a smarter, more intelligent dish. The lower-class restaurant staff should be the people we are rooting for. But Slowick runs the restaurant like a cult, the staff near-robotic automatons that follow Slowick’s orders without question, intone their “Yes, Chef!” answers like a religious chant and snap to attention as one. Slowick’s number two Elsa – superbly played by Hong Chau – sums them up: all of them are desperate to become her boss and will follow Slowick to hell and back without a murmour and their heartless, personality free cruelty makes them very hard to root for.

As does Slowick himself. Here comes that sprinkling of Lector. Played with a superb, chilling intensity by Ralph Fiennes at his most coldly austere, Slowick could have been a character who swept us up in his intelligent superiority. But there is not a hint of joy in Slowick, only a vast, bubbling anger and resentment under a coldly precise exterior. Who on earth could look at this near-psychopath and think “I’d love to be him”? Slowick’s service is dryly, terrifyingly funny but you’d certainly not be left wanting to leave him a tip (unless it was your only way of getting out alive).

Instead, we gravitate towards the odd one-out. Anya Taylor-Joy is excellent as Margot, the unexpected guest who finds herself the only person unprepared for by Slowick, who is neither a member of the super-rich, but too free-spirited and independent minded to join the Slowick cult. Dragged along by Tyler – a hilarious performance of over-eagerness, snobbish elitism and stroppy self-entitlement by Nicholas Hoult – The Menu revolves more and more around the dance of death between her and Slowick. Like the audience, Margot is invited to pick a side to sympathise with.

It makes for a rich, lingering dish with an intriguing after taste, far more developed and better cooked than the sloppy revenge saga or re-heated leftovers it could have been. It left me wanting a second course.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Luscious visuals, hilarious gags mix with an air of sadness and regret in Wes Anderson’s masterpiece

Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (M. Gustav), Tony Revolori (Zero), F. Murray Abraham (Mr Moustafa), Mathieu Amalric (Serge X), Adrien Brody (Dmitri), Willem Dafoe (Jopling), Jeff Goldblum (Deputy Kovacs), Harvey Keitel (Ludwig), Jude Law (Young Writer), Bill Murray (M. Ivan), Edward Norton (Inspector Henckels), Saoirse Ronan (Agatha), Jason Schwartzman (M. Jean), Léa Seydoux (Clotilde), Tilda Swinton (Madame D), Tom Wilkinson (Author), Owen Wilson (M. Chuck)

I wrote recently I could forgive the flaws I’ve found in Kurosawa’s work, for the majesty of Seven Samurai. I can totally say the same again for Wes Anderson. He is a director I’ve sometimes found quirky, mannered and artificial – but God almighty he deserves a place in the pantheon for directing a film as near to perfection as The Grand Budapest Hotel, a delight from start to finish, as beautiful to look at as it is whipper-snap funny, as heart-warming to bathe in as it is coldly, sadly bittersweet. After three viewings I can say it is, without a doubt, a masterpiece.

Like many Wes Anderson films, its storyline is eccentric, halfway between fantasy and absurdity. In 1932, in an opulent hotel, The Grand Budapest, concierge Monsieur Gustav (Ralph Fiennes) is the pinnacle of his trade: precise, fastidious, perfectionist, he can fix anything anywhere – opera tickets, the perfect table placement and a night of passion at any time for the elderly widows who visit his hotel. When one of them, Madame D (Tilda Swinton) dies leaving him a priceless painting, Boy with Apple he suddenly finds himself framed for her murder. Only his ingenuity, and the dedicated help of his protégé, best friend and surrogate brother/son, lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) will save him.

You can’t escape on the first viewing that The Grand Budapest Hotel is an extraordinarily funny film. Crammed with superb one-liners, it’s a showcase for a breathtakingly, blissfully funny performance from Ralph Fiennes whose comic timing is exquisite and whose mastery of the perfectly structured monologue of flowery language is as spot-on as his ability to deliver a crude punch-line. Anderson fills the film with clever sight-gags, bounce and a supreme sense of fun. You’ll laugh out loud (I frequently do, and I remember most of the gags) and wind back to watch them again.

But what lifts this is the wonderfully evocative, elegiac piece this beautiful film is. For all its comic zip, it unfolds in a romanticised past already a relic in 1932. We can’t escape the rise of Fascism that fills the film. Jack-booted soldiers accost and hunt Gustav and Zero. Adrien Brody’s furious heir to Madame D looks like a Gestapo officer, and his vicious heavy Jopling (Willem Dafoe so weathered, he looks like he’s been beaten by a carpet duster) has a stormtrooper menace. En route to Madame D’s funeral, Zero is nearly dragged off the train to be lynched by fascist thugs for being an immigrant and The Grand Budapest is taken over by this dreadful movement, filled with Mussolini-inspired ZZ insignia and blackshirts.

Under the jokes, the world Gustav represents has already died and been buried. We are never allowed to forget we are marching, inexorably, towards a very real-world war that will rip apart this fictional country and leave millions dead. Gustav’s gentile old-school charm ended with 1920s: and he sort of knows it. Fiennes, under the suaveness, conveys a man who falls back into potty language when he can no longer maintain his assured confidence that a straight-backed, polite assurance will solve any problem or a poetic reflection will allow them to put any unpleasantness behind them. Those days are gone and it makes for a deep, rich vein of sadness just under the surface.

It’s particularly acute because it’s made clear this is a memory piece. Anderson constructs the film like a memory box. It has no less than three framing devices. It opens and closes with a young woman in 2014 visiting a monument to a great writer, the author of the book The Grand Budapest Hotel. From there we flash back to the author (a droll Tom Wilkinson) in 1985 recounting how he met the man who inspired the novel, before heading again to a flashback to the 1960s where the young author (Jude Law) meets the man we discover is an older Zero (F Murray Abraham) who recounts the story we then watch. Each layer of the film descends deeper into Anderson’s artificial, carefully structured visual style, with its heightened sense of reality.

Old Zero – beautifully played by F. Murray Abraham – is introduced as a man of acute loneliness and sadness, who tells us early on the woman his young self loves, Agatha (a radiant Saoirse Ronan) will die and shuffles around the nearly abandoned The Grand Budapest (now a concrete nightmare of Communist architecture) with only his memories for comfort. No matter how jovial and bright the events of the 1930s are, we can’t forget that these are the reflections of a man full of regrets.

When old Zero’s narration turns to remembering Agatha, the lights around him dim: Agatha even enters the narrative almost by the side door: Gustav is arrested and imprisoned before she appears, along with a series of flashbacks-within-flashbacks to Zero and her meeting and her first meeting with Gustav, as if Zero had to steel himself to remember her (as reflected in Abraham’s tear-stained face). Later, when remembering the fates of Gustav (his best friend) and Agatha (the love of his life) he almost draws a veil over it (even their final scenes in flashback play out in monochrome). There is a deep, moving sense of humanity here, a powerful thread of grief that adds immense richness.

But don’t forget this is also a funny film! Anderson is an inventive visual and narrative director at the best of times, and here every single beat of his playful style pays off in spades. The entire 1930s section of the film (the overwhelming bulk of the narrative) plays out in 4:3 ratio, which to many other directors would be restrictive, but seems a perfect fit for a director who often composes his visuals with the skill of an expert cartoonist. The frame is frequently filled in every direction when within the grandeur of the hotel, but then feels marvellously restrictive for Gustav’s prison cell or the train compartments that seem to constantly carry Zero and him to disaster.

Anderson’s wonderfully precise camera movements also reach their zenith here. His camera is deceptively static, often placed in a series of perfectly staged compositions that places the characters at their heart, frequently looking at us. But then the camera will turn – frequently in a fluid single-plain ninety degrees to reveal a new image of character. There are Steadicam tracking shots that are a dream to watch. It’s combined with some truly astounding model shots (parts of the set are not-even-disguised animated models and miniatures, adding to the sense of fantasia) and the detail of every inch of the design (astounding work from Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock) is perfection. The film is an opulent visual delight.

It’s a film of belly laughs and then moments of haunting sadness. But also, a wonderful celebration of friendship. The bond between Gustav and Zero is profound, natural and deeply moving – grounded, fittingly, in adversity from the agents of a hostile, oppressive state – and carries real emotional force. Newcomer Tony Revolori is hugely endearing as naïve but brave Zero, making his way in this new world (fitting the theme, he left his homeland after his family was destroyed by war) and sparks superbly with Fiennes and Ronan.

There is a wonderful beating heart in The Grand Budapest Hotel, amongst the farce, perfectly timed gags and cheekiness, that makes it a rich film you can luxuriate in. Anderson’s direction is faultless, Fiennes is a breathtaking revelation, both hilarious, affronted, decent and fighting the good fight. Gorgeous to look at, thought-provoking and laugh-out loud funny it’s a dream of a film.

No Time to Die (2021)

One final mission for Daniel Craig in No Time to Die

Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Cast: Daniel Craig (James Bond), Lea Seydoux (Dr Madeleine Swann), Rami Malek (Lyutsifer Safin), Lashana Lynch (Nomi), Ben Whishaw (Q), Naomie Harris (Eve Moneypenny), Jeffrey Wright (Felix Leiter), Christoph Waltz (Ernst Stavro Blofield), Ralph Fiennes (M), Billy Magnussen (Logan Ash), Ana de Armas (Paloma), David Dencik (Dr Valdo Obruchev), Rory Kinnear (Bill Tanner)

Remember when Daniel Craig was cast as Bond? Remember that CraigNotBond campaign, based largely on Craig being blonde? For about five minutes there was doubt about the franchise… and then Casino Royale became one of the best Bond films ever made. Craig is, clearly, one of the greatest Bonds ever, so No Time to Die, his sign-off for the role was always going to be a big movie. It’s at times exciting and gripping, but also a strange beast, partly straining at the confines of the franchise at others desperately trying to service all expectations.

It’s five years after the events of Spectre (you’d assume the less said of that the better, but unfortunately that film is absolutely at the heart of No Time to Die so we can’t dodge it). And it’s five years since James Bond (Daniel Craig) abandoned Dr Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), believing she had been responsible for luring him into a Spectre ambush. Today, Spectre agents steal a biological weapon from MI6. A retired Bond, living off the grid in Jamaica, is recruited by Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) to hunt it down for the CIA but MI5, and their new 007 (Lashana Lynch), are also on the trail. Plots within plots are slowly revealed and it seems all roads lead back to Madeleine and her childhood escape from a scarred killer, the mysterious Safin (Rami Malek). Just when Bond thinks he’s out, they drag him back in…

I have very mixed feelings about No Time to Die. You have to admire the skill and expertise with which it has been made. It looks absolutely gorgeous. The action set-pieces are full of ingenuity and excitement – in particular a duel between Bond and Safin’s agents in a mist-filled Norwegian forest. The opening action set-piece, in a picturesque classic Italian town, with Bond leaping off bridges and bringing out the Aston Martin for one final spin, is a doozy.

But do you remember when Bond was, y’know, escapist fun? Or even really just fun? If there is one thing I’d argue that No Time to Die isn’t, it’s fun. Yes lots of exciting things happen, but it’s also a rather maudlin film. It’s got a weary end-of-days feeling and a slight air of self-importance. Its absurd length doesn’t help puncture this. Unlike almost any other Bond film, I have a hard time imagining watching this again: it’s probably a better film than, say, The Spy Who loved Me, but honestly which one would you rather watch on a Sunday afternoon?

But Daniel Craig is superb: the ultimate expression of his wryly amused but guarded and distant Bond, a man constantly worried about lowering his defences and letting anyone in, hiding pain under an insolent grin but secretly desperate for an emotional connection. It’s clear he is one of the great Bonds. He also feels rooted Fleming. Fleming’s Bond was never a super-hero, but a flawed, lonely man, often muddling through, far more vulnerable and emotional than people remember. No Time to Die has a lot of echoes of Fleming, which is no bad thing.

No Time to Die buries itself in the emotional world of Bond. This is as close as you going to get to a character study of our super-agent. So much so that the action (and even the presence of a Bond villain) feel like only a contractual obligation. I would love it if they had made a final, indie-tinged film on a small budget where we saw Craig’s Bond wrestling with complex feelings and trying to work out what it’s all about. More of Bond playing kids’ games with Leiter in a Jamaican bar, or preparing a child’s breakfast in the morning (scenes where the film literally has its heart). It makes No Time to Die an often poorly structured and ill-focused film (factors that contribute to its length) that’s trying to be about Bond but also be BOND. It’s a circle the film can’t really square.

The Bond franchise has always slavishly followed whatever the latest big trend in cinema was so No Time to Die doubles down in following the Marvel series, by retroactively converting all of Craig’s Bonds into one single Bondverse, with No Time to Die as its Avengers Endgame. Problem is, this was all thought of far too late, feels hideously thrown-together with no thought, and means both this film and Spectre had to bend over backwards to retroactively fill out now crucial back story.

As a result, we get the bloated runtime as the film needs to set up a personal back story, explore an emotional arc, establish a new threat and thread in huge set pieces. The writing and structuring aren’t deft enough to do this as well as Marvel does. The result is something three hours long but still feels hard to follow. Craig’s best film – Skyfall – worked because it was basically a stand-alone entry. The series (and the character) works best as a mission-focused individual.

Many elements of the story introduced here make little or no sense. Safin – in a truly awful performance by a whispering Rami Malek, straining to look intimidating – is possibly the worst, most incoherent Bond villain ever. His motivation makes no sense: at first he seems focused on eliminating only those who murdered his family; his rants about collateral damage in no way squares with his plan to unleash genocide via a bio-weapon. His “we are two sides of the same coin” confrontation with Craig feels like a feeble attempt to recapture the magic of the confrontation with Bardem in Skyfall.  An opening sequence suggests a plot-defining link between him and Swann which has promise but goes almost no-where (when they finally meet again mid-film, she doesn’t even know who he is).

A braver film would have dumped this bio-hazard nonsense and placed issues of family at its heart: a hero uncertain about settling down, the villain a person desperate to find a new family. This would have placed the link between Safin and Swann at its centre, and also allowed an even more intriguing exploration of Bond’s character by contrasting him directly with a villain explicitly focused on the same preoccupations. Instead, the comparison isn’t there and Swann remains an incoherent character – alternately weak and strong as required by the plot. Craig and Seydoux also have no real chemistry and look physically mismatched (Seudoux’s youthful looks make Craig look older than he is). Compare their chemistry with that between Craig and Ana de Armas (in a knock-out guest slot, the film’s most fun moment).

Instead it feels like a film where every single idea has been thrown at the frame and all of them made to stick. Lashana Lynch has some fine charisma, but basically nothing to do as the new female 007 (the part actually feels like a bone the franchise has tossed at diversity – Bond even gets the 007 title back part-way through). There are constantly plots within plots within plots, like a dementedly rushed series of 24. Bond goes AWOL, then AWOL from AWOL, then he’s in then out then in again from MI6. A more tightly structured story would have dared to cut some of the flab, but No Time to Die is only part way towards being the brave break from tradition it needs to be.

Sure, it takes daring decisions: it has a tragic ending and shock deaths punctuate the film. But while it needed to be a smaller, intimate story with a sombre mood, it still throws in ridiculous villains, bases on islands, armies of goons and a world-ending threat. These things honestly don’t really work together and contribute to making the film too long and too sombre to be any fun. It’s a film that’s only part way to being what it wants to be, but still obsessed with being what it thinks it should be. An awkward Frankenstein that I’m not sure will have as much shelf life as its maker’s hope.

Schindler's List (1993)

Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley excel in Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Liam Neeson (Oskar Schindler), Ben Kingsley (Itzhak Stern), Ralph Fiennes (Amon Goth), Caroline Goodall (Emilie Schindler), Jonathan Sagall (Poldek Pfefferberg), Embeth Davidtz (Helen Hirsch), Malgorzata Gebel (Wiktoria Klonowska), Mark Ivanir (Marcel Goldberg), Beatrice Macola (Ingrid), Andrzej Seweryn (Julian Scherner), Friedrich von Thun (Rolf Czurda)

It was the film Spielberg spent over a decade building up the courage to make. Schindler’s List not only marked a new era for him as a film-maker, it also helped a wider audience directly confront the horrors of the Holocaust. At a time when Holocaust denial was starting to rise, Schindler’s List straight-forwardly but powerfully placed the reality of this crime firmly in the eyes of the world. Schindler’s List today remains one of the most emotionally powerful Holocaust movies, the standard to which all others are judged – and peerless example of committed and passionate film-making.

Based on Thomas Keneally’s Booker-prize winning “non-fiction novel” Schindler’s Ark, the film is set in Krakow during the Second World War. As the German occupying force crowds the Jews into the overcrowded Ghetto in the first step of what will become systematic extermination, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) arrives in town looking to make his fortune. Charming, gregarious and quick with a bribe, Schindler soon makes friends with senior SS members. Setting up an enamelware factory to supply the Wehrmacht, it is staffed entirely by cheap Jewish labour (supplied by the SS) and run by skilled Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) while Schindler handles ‘public relations’ (bribes and schmoozing) with the SS. But, over time, Schindler struggles more and more to close his eyes to the murder of the Jews – a fact made even more prominent with the arrival of brutal SS commander Amon Goth (Ralph Fiennes).

Schindler’s List is chillingly, shockingly honest in its depiction of the horrors of the Holocaust. But it’s easy to forget how cunningly and gently it eases you into the nightmare you are about to watch. This is after all a film that uses Schindler as its POV character. What we are experiencing is his perception of the Holocaust, and through that trying to grasp what could potentially have made this opportunist and profiteer into a humanitarian. As such, the film is careful to give a slow build to the monstrous genocidal fury of Nazism.

In fact, much of the first thirty minutes could almost play out as a sort of triumphant against-the-odds success of a morally flexible charmer. There are a surprising number of laughs in that opening thirty minutes, at Schindler’s chutzpah and weakness for a pretty face. The opening sequence is a delightful demonstration of his confidence: we know he has nothing but the clothes he stands up in and what cash he can scrape together when he enters a nightclub frequented by the SS bigwigs we needs to impress. When he walks in no-one knows who he is: by the end of the evening a waiter is dumbfounded another guest doesn’t know who Oscar Schindler is. Much of the first act is a chronicle of Schindler playing the angles, crossing the right palms with silver and charming left right and centre to make himself a somebody from nothing.

Imagine you didn’t know what the Holocaust was. You’d think this could be a very different film. There are clues: the unspoken loathing Ben Kingsley’s Itzhak Stern clearly feels for this man who smilingly hires cheap Jewish workers from the SS (the workers get nothing) to staff his factory. The fear any Jewish character expresses when confronted with a German officer. The desperation and dirt of the Ghetto. But, like Schindler, there is enough there for you to think “yeah, it’s tough on the Jews, but it’s could be worse, it’s not my problem”.

Schindler wants to be thought of as a good man, but deep down he knows he isn’t: you can see his discomfort when he’s thanked by a one-armed man Stern has inveigled into working in the factory. He already knows he doesn’t deserve thanks – guilt that expresses itself at anger against Stern for hiring a one-armed ‘machinist’ in the first place. After all he’s running a business here.

That one-armed man is the first death we see, executed at a roadside for not being able to shovel snow from the road. Any chance of turning your face away again is lost with the arrival of Amon Goth to liquidate the Krakow Ghetto and build a new concentration camp. Played with a bloated, dead-eyed sadistic sadness by Ralph Fiennes (Goth bitches constantly about his workload, drinks to excess and is as desperate to be liked as he is uncaringly brutal), Goth oversees acts of inhumanity that leave the viewer shocked and appalled.

Spielberg films the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto like a documentary observer and doesn’t flinch from the brutality: summary executions, dead bodies left in the street, the late night slaughter of any hiding in the Ghetto. Doctors euthanise their patients (who drink the poison with thanks in their eyes) before SS guards can machine gun them in their beds. Spielberg embodies this in a single red-coated girl (one of the few splashes of colour in the film), who walks through this nightmareish hell, witnessed from a hill by the horrified Schindler. Later the same red-headed girl will be wheeled on a cart of twisted, exhumed bodies to be thrown onto a bonfire of rotting corpses.

It’s but an entrée into the nightmare of Goth’s camp and the later hell of Auschwitz. In the camp, Goth snipers those not ‘working’ from the balcony of his hilltop villa. Anyone can be executed at any time. Selections see naked inhabitants of the camp running in circles, the weak pulled out to be dispatched to the death camps. Mountains of corpses are burnt, their ashes falling like snow on Krakow. Later, a misdirected train of Schindler Jews arrives in Auschwitz where human ashes form a constant mist. Terrified the women are stripped, their hair removed and herded into a shower room: the terror of this sequence alleviated only when water not gas falls from the shower heads. Spielberg shoots all this with a careful but horrific immersiveness, which never lingers on horrors but always acknowledges them while moving you onto the next terror.

You can criticise Schindler’s List for focusing on the few thousand who survived this senseless barbarism rather than the millions of dead – but the film offers a cause for hope. That, even when things are at their worst, people can decide to do good. Itzhak Stern (a beautifully judged, deeply humane performance from Ben Kingsley) calls the list “an ultimate good”, with everything around it evil. Faced with such horrors, perhaps we need to know that a man like Oscar Schindler can turn the skills he used to enrich himself towards saving lives: bribing officials, spinning stories, presenting a front to his SS partners of an uncaring businessmen while saving as many lives as he can.

Played with huge charm and authority, mixed with a fascinatingly unknowability by Liam Neeson, the film bravely never offers a definitive answer as to what turned Schindler into a man dedicated to others rather than himself. There is no single moment where he makes the conscious turn, instead the film presents the shift as a gradual but inevitable change: as the real-life Schindler himself said, in such a situation there was no other choice.

Schindler’s List isn’t perfect. Despite his best efforts, Spielberg’s sentimentality creeps in. Neeson’s final scene takes things too far, culminating in a blatantly manipulative breakdown, weeping that he did not do more – as if Spielberg is worried we didn’t get the point. Some moments lean into Hollywood convention, from Goth’s gun repeatedly misfiring when attempting to execute a worker (who survives) to Goth and Schindler cutting cards to decide the fate of Goth’s brutalised maid Helene (a sensitive and heartfelt Embeth Davidtz). But what it gets right far outweighs this.

Spielberg presents the Holocaust with unflinching emotion and a carefully controlled sense of moral outrage. Beautifully (some argued too beautifully) filmed by Janusz Kaminski in cool black-and-white with a sensitive score from John Williams, it introduced the Holocaust to an entire generation. No other director could perhaps have done that.

In a sense Spielberg’s career was building towards this, his mastery of cinematic language (this is a superbly edited film by Michael Kahn) utilised not for thrills but to illuminate one of the darkest hours of history. But with that, it also provides hope for humanity, perhaps the key to its emotional impact. The acting is sensational – Neeson has never been better, Fiennes is extraordinary, Kingsley far too easily overlooked as the film’s heart. Traumatising, horrifying but vital and essential, Schindler’s List brings to life with deep respect the worst of history.

The Reader (2008)

Kate Winslet and David Kross in the vomit-inducing The Reader

Director: Stephen Daldry

Cast: Kate Winslet (Hanna Schmitz), Ralph Fiennes (Michael Berg), David Kross (Younger Michael Berg), Bruno Ganz (Professor Rohl), Alexandra Maria Lara (Ilana Mather), Lena Olin (Rose Mather/Older Ilana Mather), Linda Bassett (Mrs Brenner)

In 1960s Germany, teenage Michael Berg (David Kross) falls in love with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a tram conductor who seduces him and asks him to read classic novels to her in between bouts of passionate love making. As an adult (Ralph Fiennes), Michael has never got over the effect the affair had on him. But that’s largely because, as a law student, he sat in on a trial where he discovered Hanna was a guard at Auschwitz, responsible for the gas chamber selections and later locking 300 Jewish women into a burning church.

Her co-defendants turn on Hanna – but Michael realises that Hanna is illiterate so cannot possibly be the author of the reports that her co-defendants says she wrote. Hanna is imprisoned – but years after the trial, Michael rekindles a distant contact with her, sending her recordings of books he has read, which she uses to teach herself to read. Will these embodiments of new and old Germany manage to come to terms with their shared past?

There is no way round this: The Reader is a truly dreadful film. It might be the worst film nominated for Best Picture this century (the backlash over its inclusion over The Dark Knight led to a radical change in nomination rules). It is sentimental, trite, insulting, empty, vainglorious awards-bait, shot with a heritage-stylishness. It utterly fails at almost every single thing it attempts to do: from coming-of-age drama, to questions of moral responsibility in a police state, to a country reconciling with its traumatic and criminal past. In fact, it fails so utterly and completely, you are more likely to be left open-mouthed at its crude tone-deafness than remotely moved by its emotional manipulation. It is a truly dreadful film.

Daldry’s highly average direction (Oscar-frigging-nominated!) is sickeningly twee, using a number of carefully staged moments to tweak heart-strings and point our sympathies the right way. It’s the sort of Holocaust film where the only direct engagement with the subject is a beautifully framed, poetically-scored, insultingly-genteel scene of the hero visiting Auschwitz and starring sadly at collections of shoes and the gas chambers. Presumably because, any shots of the actual Holocaust – or the crimes of Hanna, who happily confesses to selecting thousands of women and children for death – would end any chance of us feeling sorry for her.

Because this is indeed a film that feels it is challenging us to say “look again” – as if Daldry and screenwriter David Hare are sitting on our shoulder saying “Ah you think it’s all black-and-white, but see how things are more complex than that”. So we are shown a concentration camp worker whose defence really is that she was just following orders – and we are asked to sympathise! She only voluntarily signs up for the SS because, you know, it was a better job than the factories. In a crudely empty moment she asks the judges at her trial “what would you do?”. Daldry shoots like this as a “Gotcha” moment – we are clearly meant to come away from that moment feeling “ah yes, there but for the grace of God go all of us”.

Only that is, for want of a better word, bullshit. Turning your back on Jewish neighbours being taken away out of fear for your own safety would be one thing, but taking a job in a death camp, selecting people for death and then watching 300 people burn to death in front of you but doing nothing? That is quite another. And the film knows this deep down, which is why we never get a flashback, or a photo, or anything that might make us sit up and go, “hell I don’t care how much you were just a foot soldier, what you did was just wrong”. To really top it off, the film even makes it clear Hanna took this job freely (not under duress, or because she was poor and starving, or any other extenuating circumstance that might prompt complex questions about what “normal” people do under evil governments) – and she’s not sorry. Not even a little bit. Not ever at any point.

These muddied morals carry over to the vomit-inducing idea that we should feel sorry for Hanna because she is fascinated by literature but deeply ashamed of her illiteracy. So ashamed in fact that she would rather be seen as the ring-leader of a mass murder than illiterate. That very sentence alone should really give you an insight into her perverted psychology. And I love books, but I don’t think that would be much of a mitigating factor if I was also Jack the Ripper.

That’s not to mention that the film doesn’t even want to engage with the fact we are told Hanna selected sensitive, vulnerable children in the camp to read for her (and then had them killed) – and doesn’t draw a connecting line between that and her using the same tactics with Michael, seducing a vulnerable 15 year old child to control him so that he will read to her. Her behaviour is clearly not some secret shame, the product of an isolated set of circumstances that will never come again – it’s who she is, and she has made no effort to change it. Hanna is worse than a child abuser, she’s a sociopathic monster and the film’s attempt to paint her as something else is appalling.

I suppose it could have just about worked if it the film had managed to make some decent material out of its theme of Germany’s struggle with its history. But even that gets fudged. There is one decent scene, as Michael and his fellow students discuss morality with the professor (a cuddily Bruno Ganz), but other than that the idea gets lost in the cut. Instead it settles for “what would you do” confrontations and clumsy parallels between Michael’s distress about finding out the truth and his trauma and guilt leading to a struggle to emotionally connect with people.

But then he’s only matching the film which has no emotional understanding of people. It sees nothing wrong with what I am about to describe. After Hanna’s death, Michael follows the request of her will to take her life savings to the daughter of one of her victims. Not only is Michael emotionally illiterate enough to carry out this shockingly tone-deaf request, but (amazingly) the woman not only sees him in her home but keeps as a souvenir the tin Hanna kept her cash in and then puts the tin next to a her picture of her family murdered in the Holocaust. Even writing it I can hardly believe I saw it. It’s the film’s attempt to say “look there is hope” but not in any universe does any of this behaviour seem even remotely real.

The Reader instead wants to try and juggle a big theme (the Holocaust) with a cliched one (a coming-of-age for a young man) and throw in an airport-novel faux big theme (isn’t reading great!) into a syrupy, awards-winning piece of prestige cinema. It probably deserves some sort of award for getting everything about this catastrophically wrong. By the time Hanna climbs on a pile of books she has made to hang herself, you’ll be desperate to give her a shove.

Oh, Kate Winslet won an Oscar. She’s does her usual excellent job. But the film is utter dogshit.

The English Patient (1996)

Ralph Fiennes excels as the tragic The English Patient

Director: Anthony Minghella

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Count Almasy), Juliette Binoche (Hana), Willem Dafoe (David Caravaggio), Kristin Scott Thomas (Katherine Clifton), Naveen Andrews (Kip), Colin Firth (Geoffrey Clifton), Julian Wadham (Maddox), Jurgen Prochnow (Major Muller), Kevin Whatley (Sergeant Hardy), Clive Merrison (Colonel Fenelon-Barnes), Nino Castelnuovo (D’Agostino)

Sweeping, luscious, beautiful and an epic translation of an almost unfilmable novel into something supremely cinematic, The English Patient swept the board with nine Oscars at the 1996 Academy Awards. The English Patient has sometimes had a rocky reputation (not helped by an episode of Seinfeld where Elaine was famously non-plussed by the film). Like some of Minghella’s later work, it’s almost too well made for some to get past, looking like prime award bait. I didn’t “get it” the first time I watched it. But I – and the naysayers – were wrong: The English Patient is rich, rewarding and throbbing with a very British sense of repressed emotion and slow embracing of dangerous passions.

Adapted from Michael Ondatje’s multiple-award-winning novel, it unfolds across two time frames, hinging on a plane crash in the Sahara in 1942 that opens the film and leaves its pilot, Hungarian Count Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), hideously burned beyond recognition. The entire film is both an epilogue to that crash and a prologue explaining how we got there. In 1945, Almasy asserts he remembers nothing, even his own name. In what we later learn is a bitter irony, he is mistaken for an Englishman due to his perfect English. He is nursed through the final days of his life in an abandoned Italian monastery by a Canadian nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche), who has lost nearly everyone she loves in the war. Through Almasy’s memories, we see his life before the war as part of an international society of cartographers. In particular, the love affair that grows between him and Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott-Thomas), the wife of another member of the society – an affair that will have life-shattering repercussions.

Appreciation for Minghella’s film must start with his ingenious screenplay. The English Patient, a book that moves eclectically between multiple timelines, shifting perspective frequently, and delivers its story in almost impossibly rich prose, should have been unfilmable. Minghella creates something which is both a mirror of the book’s intention, but also a cinematic text. You could use this as a teaching tool for adaptation (bizarrely one of the few Oscars it didn’t win was for Screenplay!). Working in close partnership with editor Walter Murch, Minghella’s film effortlessly cuts back and forth between at least three timelines, but never once confuses or jars. With (according to Murch) over 40 time transitions (that’s one almost every 3-4 minutes, fact fans), this could have been a jarring, impossible to follow mess. Instead, narrative clarity is its watchword.

But the film also succeeds because it’s the apex of Minghella’s ability to combine luscious, poetic story-telling with acute emotion and passion. It shouldn’t be a surprise that someone who showed such understanding of grief in Truly, Madly, Deeply acutely understands how joy and pain can go hand-in-hand in love. Perhaps one of the reasons people found this a difficult film is that Almasy and Katherine are not a traditional romantic pairing. Both guarded, sometimes even cold and distant people, they are tentative, perhaps even scared, of the deep bond they immediately feel. A bond that burns all the more brightly because of the compromises and barriers in their emotional lives.

Almasy is distant, aloof, a man easy to know but impossible to understand. Katherine has a very English reserve behind a certain patrician warmth, playful at times but very aware of duty. What’s fascinating – and moving – about the film, is that these two people actually have a huge groundswell of passion between them. They are besotted with each other, but for reasons ranging from background to their own fears of emotional involvement, struggle to admit it to each other. They fling themselves at each other in romantic couplings with an almost animalistic longing. They make each other laugh. They allow themselves to speak of deep feelings, experiences and thoughts that they would not express to others. And they are also able to hurt each other through resentments, distances and shunnings in a way no one else could.

It’s a decidedly unconventional romance – compare it to, say, the next year’s Oscar winner Titanic with its far more conventional love story – but it works wonderfully. The slight air of repression also means that the confessions of deep-rooted feelings – Scott Thomas’ reveal of a gift she has never parted from, or Fiennes’ face twisted in emotional anguish – carry huge impact.

It also helps that the film is set in the sort of grand vistas that David Lean would be proud of. While you can certainly argue (with some justification) that The English Patient is a picture postcard film, its perfect visuals of the desert, the stunning beauty of so many of its shots, add to the extraordinary luscious old-fashioned 1930s romance of its setting. It could all be taking place in a world of von Sternbergesque romanticism.

Minghella’s film also interweaves skilfully the 1945 story line, revolving around Juliette Binoche’s Hana. Binoche won a deserved Oscar for a sensitive, vulnerable performance as a woman terrified of emotional commitment (sound familiar?), scared anyone she grows close to is doomed to die. Her romance with bomb disposal expert Kip (a strikingly delicate performance from Naveen Andrews, with just enough hints of anti-colonial tension mixed in) seems ready to fit this trope, but instead develops in unexpected ways. It also contributes perhaps the film’s most sweepingly romantic moment when Kip uses a pulley system, a flare and a bit of muscle to give Hana a sweeping up-close look at some Renaissance frescos. But while our flashback romance has the foreboding of doom to it, this one instead shows us the hope of a life restarting.

The English Patient also makes some striking points about the insane foolishness not just of war, but nationalism and Empire. The cartographers are a pan-European group who come together as equals, disregarding all concerns of nation. Instead they find a freedom to behave – intellectually, emotionally and sexually – in a way they never could “at home”. They represent a chance of being free to make our own choices, rather than dictated by arbitrary borders. Problems of nationhood are what will bring disaster. Colonialism is viewed equally critically: Kip gets sharp digs in at Kipling and also makes clear that his status as an Indian officer in the British Army is one of uncertainty.

Minghella’s film also works because of the mastery of the performances. Fiennes is in nearly every scene (many of them under a layer of make-up), and the role is a perfect match for the surface coldness in his performance style, which hides his wit and sensitivity. Cheated of the Oscar, Fiennes has rarely been better – his clipped romanticism mellowing in the 1945 section as a gentler but broken man. Scott-Thomas is perfectly cast – I’m not sure any other film has used her skills better – as a woman who compromised on happiness at the wrong time, and now cannot express herself.

The English Patient is a romance of slow moments, of inferred passions, which only at a few points before the end flower into something intimate. But it carries a huge emotional force, precisely because of this. Its technical work is faultless – Gabriel Yared’s score is a sumptuous mix of inspirations – and the acting superb (as well as the stars, Firth is marvellous as a decent but dull man cuckolded, Dafoe adds a layer of unpredictability as a 1945 houseguest and Whatley is the picture of working-class decency in a rare film role). The English Patient is Booker-prize film-making in its depth, richness and the work it asks you to put in, mixed with a David-Lean-meets-Mills-and-Boon pictorial loveliness, where each frame is a sun-kissed example of pictorial perfection. Mixed together, it makes for a sumptuous and deeply emotional package that I find more and more rewarding with every viewing.

The Invisible Woman (2013)

Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones excel in the thoughtful and well handled The Invisible Woman

Director: Ralph Fiennes

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Charles Dickens), Felicity Jones (Nelly Ternan), Kristin Scott Thomas (Mrs Ternan), Tom Hollander (Wilkie Collins), Joanna Scanlan (Catherine Dickens), Michelle Fairley (Caroline Graves), Tom Burke (George Wharton Robinson), Perdita Weeks (Maria Ternan), John Kavanagh (Reverend Benham), Amanda Hale (Fanny Ternan)

In 1865 Charles Dickens was involved in a train accident. While he worked tirelessly, tending to those caught up in the accident, he was also extremely careful to hide the fact he was travelling with a young actress called Nelly Ternan. Ms Ternan was his lover, had been for several years, and the couple were returning from Paris. Dickens managed to avoid the inquest and preserve the secret of his affair. Because, while he was happy to publicly announce his separation from his wife, the idea of the public hearing that he had an affair with someone 27 years younger than him was unthinkable.

The affair is deduced from careful deduction and the small remaining correspondence (both parties destroyed large numbers of letters) by the biographer Claire Tomlin. Her book forms the basis of Fiennes’ thoughtful, careful and intelligent film, with the director playing Dickens and Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan. The Invisible Woman is restrained and unjudgmental film-making, that largely avoids obvious moral calls and weaves a beautifully constructed tale of two people who make themselves both happy and miserable.

And that misery is partly due to the times they live in. It’s an era of Victorian morals, where all that matters is the surface appearance and any real emotions underneath can go hang. But it’s also a world where very different rules apply to men and women. Dickens can leave his wife (in a press announcement) – but of course a woman could never do the same. It’s a world of strictly defined rules, with clear roles for both genders that cannot be deviated from. And it forces Nelly Ternan to travel to Paris, because the public shame that would come with her pregnancy by Dickens would destroy her. It’s why, years after Dicken’s death, she is lying about how well she knew the man (even changing her name and age to further distance herself) so that she can conform with the expectations of being a school-master’s wife (and ensure she will not be thrown out to the streets).

The rules are so strong that both Dickens and Ternan are as much in thrall to them as anyone else. Dickens is willing to bend the rules – but only so far. He would clearly never dream of living openly with his unmarried partner and their child as his friend Wilkie Collins (a perfectly cast Tom Hollander) would do. And Nelly Ternan is as outraged at this liaison – and as desperately uncomfortable in their home – as any prim housewife would be. In fact, in many ways, Nelly is even more conservative than Dickens.

But then she has to be. After all, he would be a rogue, she would be a whore. Choices aren’t great for women – and in her chosen career of actress, Nelly is clearly far more enthusiastic than she is talented. It’s worries about the career that leads to her mother – an excellent performance of motherly love mixed with a quiet understanding of the world from Kristin Scott Thomas – all but encouraging Dickens to seduce her daughter. Because, for an independently minded woman passionate about the art, if you can’t be an actress your other option is to be a muse.

Even Dickens seems quietly ashamed at his seduction of this woman, while she half-persuades herself it isn’t happening until it is. So, what draws them together? Refreshingly this isn’t a question of an older man excited by a younger woman – or a naïve woman swept up by a powerful man. Instead, these are kindred spirits. Both of them are passionate, intelligent and questioning. They both express an emotional honesty and openness. They have shared passions for literature, theatre and stories. It’s a romance that slowly blossoms and is based on a shared feeling. It would have been easier to tell a story of seduction and abuse – but this is a more intelligent film than that. At that fatal train accident, its Dickens who yearns to stay with Nelly and its Nelly that urges him to leave to preserve his secrets.

As these two, we have two actors with beautiful chemistry. Felicity Jones is inspired as Nelly Ternan. She both idolises Dickens, but is also drawn towards him on a very human level. She is astute, but conservative and at times even remote. Her older self, over a decade later, is both prickly and defensive – and those are qualities you can trace in her younger self, and not just because of her fear of disgrace. It’s a beautifully judged performance, both older than her time and also with a vibrancy and energy that entrances.

Fiennes, a more reserved actor, seems like an odd choice for the bon vivant Dickens – but he brilliantly excels in the role, full of energy and room-filling dominance. He marvellously conveys the charm and passion of Dickens, but also his thoughtlessness. This is after all a man who drops his wife by newspaper announcement and builds a barrier between their bedrooms. Who loves Nelly, but not enough to make her anything but a secret. Who is passionate and excited about his work, but can be turn distant and cool in his personal life. It’s a fabulous performance.

And the two leads are centred in a low-key, poetic film. You get the sense that there is a danger in getting to close to genius. Dicken’s wife Catherine – a beautifully sad and lonely performance from Joanna Scanlan – even warns Nelly about it (while delivering a gift from her husband, sent to her by mistake). It’s a danger that shapes Nelly’s whole life – but also her life is enriched by having Dickens in it. It’s a film that avoids obvious moral judgments – and while there are things done which cause pain, everyone is living in an imperfect society. Fiennes direction and use of visual language is wonderful and this is an impressive film.

The Dig (2020)

THe Dig header
Ralph Fiennes plays an amateur digger who makes a huge discovery in the poetic The Dig

Director: Simon Stone

Cast: Carey Mulligan (Edith Pretty), Ralph Fiennes (Basil Brown), Lily James (Peggy Piggott), Johnny Flynn (Rory Lomax), Ben Chaplin (Stuart Piggott), Ken Stott (Charles Phillips), Archie Barnes (Robert Pretty), Monica Dolan (May Brown)

One of the greatest archaeological finds in British History, the Anglo-Saxon burial ship in Sutton Hoo revealed vast treasures and cultural insights that are very rarely glimpsed. Land-owner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), a widow with a young son Robert (Archie Barnes), hires self-taught excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to investigate the curious mounds on her land. Brown discovers one of them holds the buried ship. But the dig is taken from his control by the British Museum, led by Charlie Phillips (Ken Stott): professional archaeologists who want to ensure the work is ‘done properly’. With tensions of class and profession, everyone must race against time to complete as much of the work as possible before the outbreak of the Second World War.

On the surface, The Dig is a charming, heart-felt reconstruction of a fascinating moment of archaeological history, mixed with engaging (but familiar) stories of a working-class amateurs being patronised by upper-class professionals. However, Stone’s film manages to have a richer second layer. With war approaching, and mortality constantly on the mind of most of the characters, it’s also a subtle investigation of legacy, the past and death itself.

Stone’s film develops this with its rich, poetic filming style. Beautifully shot in a series of gorgeous hazy hues, with dynamic use of low-angles and wide-angle lenses, Sutton Hoo is given an almost mystical beauty. Stone also makes extensive use of playing dialogue over images not of the conversation, but smaller moments in character’s lives, from casual meetings to cleaning shoes, that as such take on a profounder meaning. It’s a visual representation of how our legacy is often a snapshot of images and relics, moments that stay in the memory even when events (or conversation in this case) has moved on. It’s subtly done, but carries a beautiful impact.

Then of course, it’s not surprising legacy in on the mind. Each of the characters is at a tipping point in their own lives. Edith Pretty – so consumed with quiet grief over the loss of her husband that she is desperate for there to be something on the other side – is struggling with her own health, aware she will shortly leave her son an orphan. Her cousin Rory prepares for service in the RAF – service she fears will shortly leave him dead (the dangers of the airforce are clearly shown when a trainee pilot crashes and drowns near to the dig).

This connection to the briefness and intangibility of life pushes people to address their own choices. After all they are all standing in the grave of a man considered so important at that the time, a ship was dragged several miles to honour him – and today we have no idea who he was. Married archaeologist couple Stuart and Peggy Piggott confront an amiable loveless marriage (he’s gay, she’s falling in love with Rory) that shouldn’t define their lives. Basil has dealt with quiet grief at a childless marriage, and sees his work in astronomy and archaeology as his legacy.

These ideas are gently, but expertly, threaded together with a reconstruction of the key issues around the dig. Needless to say, the academics – led by Ken Stott at his most pompous – have no time for Basil’s home-spun methods. Basil’s predictions of the Anglo-Saxon tomb are constantly dismissed until he literally digs the ship up. Immediately he is benched to clearing soil (and only on Edith’s insistence is he allowed to remain at all) and later his name will be scrubbed out of the official record. It’s always the way with Britain – and a sign of how tenuous our legacies can be.

The personal stories are not always as well explored. The film has its flaws, not least the sad miscasting of Carey Mulligan as Edith. In reality, Edith was in her mid-50s when the ship was discovered. The film was developed for Nicole Kidman, but with her withdrawal Mulligan (twenty years too young) was drafted in. Sadly, nothing was changed to reflect this: meaning the characters years of spinsterhood before marriage lose impact (seriously how old can she have been when she married? She’s got a 12 year old son!). A softly underplayed romantic interest between Edith and Basil is also rather unsettling considering the vast age difference between them. (It’s better to imagine it as a platonic bond).

It’s still more engaging than the rather awkward love triangle the film introduces late on between the married Piggotts and Edith’s (fictional) cousin Rory. It’s fairly familiar stuff – the closeted gay Piggott, the growing realisation of this by Peggy and the obvious charm and gentle interest of Rory – and more or less pans out as you might expect, although at least with a dollop of human kindness.

The film’s other delight is the acting. Ralph Fiennes is superb as the taciturn Basil, a dedicated self-taught man who knows what he is worth, but struggles to gain that recognition. Fiennes not only has excellent chemistry with Mulligan and Barnes, he also suggests a quiet regret in Basil as well as a fundamental decency tinged with pride. For all that she is miscast, Mulligan does very good work as Edith while Chaplin, James and Flynn make a lot of some slightly uninspired material.

The Dig is at its best when asking quiet and gentle questions about life and when it focuses on the platonic romance between Basil and Edith. Directed with a poetic assurance by Simon Stone, it doesn’t push its points too far and gets a good balance between fascinating historic reconstruction and more profound questions of mortality.

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 End of the Affair (1999)

Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes in a doomed romance in The End of the Affair

Director: Neil Jordan

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Maurice Bendrix), Julianne Moore (Sarah Miles), Stephen Rea (Henry Miles), Ian Hart (Mr Parkis), Jason Isaacs (Father Richard Smythe), James Bolam (Mr Savage), Sam Bould (Lance Parks), Deborah Findlay (Miss Smythe)

The End of the Affair is one of Graham Greene’s most autobiographical novels, based strongly on his relationship with Catherine Walston, wife of a friend in the civil service. Unlike the affair in the book, Greene’s continued for decades, long after the publication of the novel in 1951 (which had led to the husband demanding an end to it – a demand ignored). Greene’s novel recounts the dangerous passions of an affair, mixed with the powerful anxieties and uncertainties that the Catholic faith can have on relationships. Jordan’s film captures much of this – but in places fails to fully understand the spirit of Greene’s compelling novel.

Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes) is a moderately successful popular author, excused war service due to having injured his leg in the Spanish Civil War. In 1946, a chance meeting with Henry Miles (Stephen Rea), a staid civil servant brings back vivid memories of Maurice’s wartime affair with Henry’s wife Sarah (Julianne Moore). The affair ended abruptly for reasons Maurice cannot understand, and his love is twisting into jealous resentment. With Henry now concerned Sarah is having an affair – and seemingly unaware of Maurice and Sarah’s wartime relationship – Maurice takes it upon himself to hire Parkis (Ian Hart) a private investigator to find out more. The results though give him profound and affecting insights into both the present and the reasons for the end of his own affair with Sarah.

Jordan’s adaptation gets so much right, it’s almost more of a shame that it gets things wrong as well. The atmosphere of the film is simply perfect. It looks and feels exactly like a classic slice of Greeneland, with its dreary London, rain-soaked settings and gloomy period setting. Roger Pratt’s Oscar nominated photography is perfect for the tragic beauty of Greene’s work, and its matched with a sublime musical score from Michael Nyman that wrings every inch of emotion from the story.

Ralph Fiennes is also the perfect idea of a Greene hero – slightly imperious, bitter, arrogant with an air of prep school smugness mixed with an underlying sense of grim inferiority. It’s hard to imagine any other actor – maybe except Colin Firth – better suited to the slight air of dissolute, not obviously sympathetic world-weary struggle that a Greenian hero needs to exhibit. Fiennes barely puts a foot wrong and could have practically walked off the page.

Equally good is Julianne Moore, who nails a very English type of person, a woman determined to do her best and to set standards, but who carries just below the surface a deep well of emotional pain and sorrow that briefly is allowed to peek through. It’s a heart-rending performance of a person desperate for happiness, but hiding that longing under a veneer of acceptability, who sacrifices what she wants from life to meet the obligations of her faith. 

Because, it being Graham Greene, Faith is the big issue here – the idea of the private deals we make with God and the cost that those impose on us, the sacrifices of our own happiness in surface of something higher than ourselves. Greene’s novel intrinsically understand the eternal struggle felt in Catholicism to do the right thing, to accept the love of God into your life even if it means turning your back on more earthly loves and passions. How these journeys can be hard – unbearable even – but carry a level of reward in themselves. 

It’s that feeling for God – who Bendrix grows to believe has cheated him from happiness on earth – that powers his “diary of hate” that he is writing as the book opens. It’s an idea the film only fitfully engages with. Jordan deviates from the novel’s real intention at a key point, in particular “correcting” a dramatic error he feels Greene makes by having Sarah die “off camera” in the book, of a sudden cold, after confessing to Bendrix her reasons for ending the affair, her pact with God.

This narrative change allows a sequence in Brighton as the two reignite their affair – but it also undermines the tragedy of the book, that suddenness of loss, and also makes Sarah’s death feel like a tit-for-tat punishment for going back on her word. More to the point, the affair restarting has the air of an atheistic view of the Catholic complications here, an idea that these can be easily brushed aside because the “heart wants”. It’s to miss the point of Greene’s world thinking and undermine the small everyday tragedy in favour of something more conventional and “epic”.

It’s a major tweak that undermines the strength (otherwise) of Jordan’s work here – his directing and scripting is otherwise largely faultless. Other changes to the source clarify the message – I think changing Smythe (a gently but arrogantly certain Jason Isaacs) into a priest rather than an atheist Sarah is using to test her faith makes sense, even if it does suggest that she acts under the influence of someone else rather than on her own opinions. Making Bendrix a Spanish war veteran rather someone suffering the effects of a childhood illness adds a political and moral romanticism to the character entirely absent from any of the rest of his personality. But it’s fine.

Jordan’s film has many strengths. Its tone is excellent and it’s passion inspiring (the tender explicitness of the sex scenes landed it with a bizarre and controversial 18 certificate) and there are superb performances, not just the leads but Stephen Rea excellent as the meek but noble husband and some lovely comic work from Ian Hart as a haplessly efficient private eye. But the film slightly misses, in the end, the point of the novel – which is a real shame. If Jordan had stuck to the book, and its complex themes of guilt and grief and Catholicism we could have really had something here.