Tag: Ray Winstone

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Indy is back. Hunting aliens. What could go wrong? Grab a fridge and let’s work it out.

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Shia LeBeouf (Mutt Williams), Cate Blanchett (Colonel Irina Spalko), Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood), Ray Winstone (George “Mac” McHale), John Hurt (Harold Oxley), Jim Broadbent (Dean Charles Stanforth)

Flying into ignominy faster than a tumbling fridge, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who lists Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as their favourite Indy film. I’ll confess I enjoyed it in an affectionate escapist way when I first saw it. But lord, doesn’t it just get worse after every viewing?

It’s the 1950s and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is still hunting for archaeological gems. Just as he’s still getting into trouble. This time with the Russians. A secret group in America, led by Colonel Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) is on the hunt for a mysterious artefact – a secret mummified alien corpse. Spalko wants to trace the aliens to find the fountain of all knowledge. Indy is suspected of being a Commie agent – not least after his old ally Mac (Ray Winstone) is revealed as a double agent – but soon finds himself roped into searching for the secret aliens and their buried crystal skulls by Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a greaser and school drop-out and son of Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) (wonder who the father could be?). Soon they are racing to a secret alien tomb in the Amazon.

You can spend ages scooting around what doesn’t work here. But the heart of it might be this: this is a sequel trying to pass as a young man’s film, made by two older directors who had long since fallen out of touch with the passions that filled their lives 30 years earlier. Truth be told, I suspect both Spielberg and Lucas always saw Indiana Jones as a fun diversion from other passions and never really cared about it the way generations that grew up quoting it did. Perhaps that was the biggest disappointment of all about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a film that has potential but always feels like it’s being put together by obligation (and to make money).

Still, the good stuff. Harrison Ford is, of course, still Indy and there is a great deal of pleasure in seeing him inhabit this gruff mix of brains, fists and reluctant, cynical decency. The film also does a good spin on the father-son relation of Last Crusade by casting Indy as the exasperated father who finds a bond with his wild-card son (well played by Shia LaBeouf). The two have a lovely run of banter, and some neat comedy – not least a great little moment in a bar where Mutt steals a drink from a waitress’ tray, only for Indy to smoothly put it back all the same motion.

There is an exciting chase through the streets of New Haven, with Indy and Mutt on a bike escaping the Russians, including a great sight gag of Indy being pulled into a chasing car passenger window, fighting through the car and emerging the other side back onto Mutt’s bike. The opening extended fight and chase sequence (before we hit that fridge) in an Area-51 storage site is equally well done, fast paced, witty and crammed with tonnes of Spielberg flourishes. Cate Blanchett is intriguingly off-the-wall as the villain. The film even leans into Ford’s age as Indy swings over a gap and misses (“Damn I thought that was closer”) and gives Indy much of his Dad’s grouchiness.

But too much doesn’t work. And all those beats that fall on their face eventually bury the moments that do work. For starters, the original films felt real. They are shot with a grainy realism and featured practical effects. Spielberg stressed in the build-up he wanted to keep that look. So naturally the first thing we see in the film is a CGI gopher. The film is shot with a glossy, lens-smeared shininess. After a while loads of stuff looks unreal. From the fake CGI sky in the opening scene to the hideously unreal looking jungle chase, culminating in the bizarre sight of Mutt swinging, Tarzan-like, leading an army of monkeys. Like the Star Wars prequels, it feels like Lucas and Spielberg mistook making things bigger, glitzy and more exotic for making them better. Truth is nothing in this film is as exciting as Indy climbing over a real van in Raiders or riding a real horse alongside a real tank in Last Crusade. These are real and gripping. Everything here looks like it’s been built in a computer, nothing feels real or possible, and everything is bigger and heartless.

That heartlessness carries into the plot. The earlier films had clear and emotionally engaging stakes. Indy had to save his soul (Raiders and Doom), a village of children (Doom) and his relationship with his father (Last Crusade) while chasing clearly defined artifacts. Here he’s sort of incidentally building a father-son relationship with a kid he doesn’t realise is his son until over halfway through and heading into the Amazon to return a glass skull because it told him to do it. These are not well-defined stakes. That’s before we even touch on the aliens.

I can’t quite put my finger on it, but where artefacts based on the Bible or Hindu religion make perfect sense, an alien skull chase that culminates in a parallel dimensions and flying saucers feels silly. It feels as awkwardly out-of-place as midichlorians in Phantom Menace. It makes the film jar as much as those special effects filled set pieces. I know it’s supposed to mirror the 50s setting by playing with the classic 50s B-movie set-up. But it doesn’t fit with the rest of the franchise.

And you are made even more aware of this by how cynically the film has been filled with fan-bait call-backs: the opening sequence in the Grail storage warehouse, the music cues, Karen Allen, a repeat of the father-son set-up (this time flipped), a car chase through a hostile environment, horrible small animals, Commies standing in for Nazis. Killer ants standing in for snakes, horrible insects and rats. Travel and map montages. All this does is remind you of better films.

It’s not helped by how many performances fall flat. Winstone and Hurt both insisted on reading the script before they signed up. Perhaps they also read their pay offers at the same time, because that’s surely the only reason they said yes to these roles. Winstone is painfully unfunny as the ever-betraying Mac whose geezerish cries of “Jonsey!” quickly gets on your nerves. Hurt is saddled with a sort of Ben Gunnish eccentric, babbling nonsense (you won’t believe by the way he and Ford are similar ages). Karen Allen, bar the sweetness of seeing her again, is not great.

The feeling you are watching the runt of the littler is impossible to escape. Indy was a hero people loved because you could see him bleed. When he was punched it hurt. When he fell, he struggled to get back up. The Indy from Raiders would never have been hurled miles in a fridge from a nuclear blast and been absolutely fine. Christ, he was too knackered to stand up after running from that rock. That’s why the fridge moment doesn’t work: no one watching it can believe for a moment that either (a) a fridge would be hurled away like that rather than melt (b) that anyone would be utterly unharmed by it or (c) that its lead lining would save anyone from being irradiated. A mystic box that melts people’s faces when open we can buy because its “power of God” is carefully established with just enough mysterious power. Something grounded in reality like a nuclear blast can’t work. We know what that does – the fridge stretches our willingness to disbelieve too far.

But then you feel Spielberg and Lucas didn’t mind. To them these were fun home movies, a chance to indulge some childish gags. They weren’t invested in it the way we were. They had moved on and I don’t think really either of them wanted to make it. When they did, they showed they didn’t really know what people really liked about the films in the first place. They assumed it was the action. Maybe they thought they needed that with the blockbusters they were going up against. But people loved the heart and the reality. When the fridge was nuked, they knew they won’t going to get that here. That Kingdom of the Crystal Skull would have none of what made us fall in love in the first place. It was an adventure we wouldn’t want to follow Indy on ever again.

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.

The Departed (2006)

DiCaprio, Nicholson and Damon runaround in Scorsese’s cartoonish Oscar-winner The Departed

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Billy Costigan), Matt Damon (Colin Sullivan), Jack Nicholson (Frank Costello), Mark Wahlberg (Sean Dignam), Martin Sheen (Captain Queenan), Ray Winstone (Mr French), Vera Farmiga (Dr Madolyn Madden), Alec Baldwin (Captain Ellerby), Anthony Anderson (Trooper Brown), James Badge Dale (Trooper Barrigan), David O’Hara (Fitzy), Mark Rolston (Tim Delahunt)

It’s one of those historical oddities that Scorsese finally won his Oscar for his lightest (comparatively speaking) most out-right entertaining film. I’ll confess I’ve never been a huge fan of The Departed. It won Best Picture in a year without a clear front runner, with the Academy feeling an overwhelming sense that Scorsese was ‘due a win’. The Departed is certainly entertaining, but as a great big, violent cartoon which feels like a different universe from the director’s real gangster masterpieces, such as Goodfellas, Mean Streets and Casino. The Departed also can’t hold a candle to Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and The Aviator (I know that last one is controversial). Still it may be just a bit of fun, but at least it is fun.

Boston is a city where the Irish community is split, between cops and robbers. Crime lord Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) gets a man on the inside by pushing his protégé Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) to train as a police officer so he can get tips from the inside. Simultaneously, Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) recruits officer trainee Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), an honest young man with a dodgy family, to go under cover in Costello’s gang. Both moles feed information on their ‘side’ to the other – but the stakes heighten as they both become aware of the others existence and race to unmask the other’s identity.

Based on a Hong Kong action film, Infernal Affairs (which has the same plot, but tells the story in about half the time). The Departed takes the basic template and ratchets almost everything up to an even more frenzied pitch. Scorsese throws in fast-cutting visual flair, makes effective use of montage and lays The Rolling Stones over the soundtrack (he really does love Gimme Shelter doesn’t he?). It’s hard to tell, watching The Departed, how much Scorsese’s tongue was in his cheek. This could very easily be a parody piss-take of Casino, with its bright-lights, extreme violence, effing and jeffing and toxic masculinity.

What is clear is that The Departed has all the logic of a playground game. Nothing ever feels particularly real, all emotions and personalities are dialled up to eleven. Big name actors have fun with big, chewable dialogue fully of sweary one-liners. There is barely any sense of a wider world, The Departed really being a chamber piece involving a few key characters, played out in a graphic novel style. In real life both Costigan and Sullivan would have been uncovered in seconds (it makes Line of Dutylook like a fly-on-the-wall documentary). If it has links to any Scorsese film, it’s probably Cape Fear, which was a similar heightened pastiche (of Hitchcock). Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of fun in watching Scorsese essentially take himself off, and it’s nice to see him having fun, but the film’s constant resorting to foul-mouthed, cartoonish action means depths are missed.

For starters, the film touches on but never really dives into the complex divided loyalties Costigan and Sullivan feel for their sides. After years (at least I think its years, there is very little sense of timeline in the film) pretending to serve one master while actually serving another, you’d expect an exploration of loyalty being increasingly torn between these two masters. It’s not a sense that comes across in the film. Instead, both of them feel fear of their false master and resentment to the true master. Both want to retire – seemingly to the same (lawful) side. The film spends time on the psychological impact of the constant stress of living a lie – but its analysis of this is skin-deep, trauma exhibiting as a bubbling, unpredictable temper (especially with DiCaprio’s Costigan) rather than really giving us an understanding of the psychological trauma. All the final shots in the world of a rat crawling across a railing in front of the court house, doesn’t translate into insight.

The film also misses the mark in exploring the dangerous masculinity of this world. The intense male attitudes here – with the macho posturing and the constant use of sexual and homophobic slurs – are obviously part and parcel of this world. But you feel a smarter film would have unpacked this more, rather than using it for punchlines and chuckles. There’s only really one woman here – a female psychiatrist who (obviously) becomes involved with both men – and you feel more could have been made of how the destructive bloodshed of this film is at least partly powered by overgrown schoolboys on both sides burning the world down to prove their manliness.

But this film is designed as an entertainment, not the sort of insightful character study Scorsese has delivered in the past. And with its primary colour pallet and shots – like a character falling from a building, and low-angle Dutch angle shots of characters checking phones – that seem inspired by graphic novels, it’s clear that we are not meant to take things too seriously here.

That carries across to the performances, many of which are Grand Guignal in their excess. None more so than Jack Nicholson in a performance of such flamboyant “Jack-ness” that it will either delight you or make you wonder whether Scorsese gave him any limits at all. The cast is roughly split between the OTT and the method. Mark Wahlberg follows Nicholson’s lead as a foul-mouthed, permanently angry cop, with rigid morals (he was Oscar-nominated and gets most of the film’s funniest lines) while Baldwin showboats amusingly on the chewy dialogue. At the other end, Sheen brings a fatherly warmth to Queenan while Winstone mumbles a lot as Costello’s number two.

In the leads, DiCaprio brings an edgy, firecracker intensity to Costigan, a man who seems constantly on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Damon, by contrast, underplays rather effectively as the seemingly straight-laced Sullivan, letting the Boston accent roll around his tongue and riffing effectively off his “boy next door” looks. Vera Farmiga does decent work as the woman caught in the middle – even if she’s not 1% convincing as a trained trauma psychologist.

That doesn’t matter though in the heightened, cartoony posturing, blazing gun battles and operatic shouting that makes up the crazy world of The Departed. Scorsese lifting the Oscar for this is rather like David Hockney winning the Turner Prize for a doodle. I enjoyed it a lot more this time around, but it’s still a big, crude, graphic novel, something that looks and sounds clever., but is only a B-movie imitation of Scorsese’s finest work. The Departed is frothy but misses the mark when it aims for true thematic or character exploration.

The Proposition (2005)

Guy Pearce is given a fateful mission in bleak Aussie Western The Proposition

Director: John Hillcoat

Cast: Guy Pearce (Charlie Burns), Ray Winstone (Captain Morris Stanley), Emily Watson (Martha Stanley), Danny Huston (Arthur Burns), David Wenham (Eden Fletcher), Richard Wilson (Mike Burns), John Hurt (Jellon Lamb), Tom E Lewis (Two Bob), Leah Purcell (Queenie), Robert Morgan (Sgt Lawrence), David Gulpilil (Jacko), Tom Budge (Samuel Stoart)

In the Australian outback at some point near the turn of the last century, a gang of ruthless killers are finally tracked down and killed by the police. The only survivors are Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson). Charlie is offered a proposition by British émigré police captain Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone): find and kill Charlie’s other brother, the even more ruthless Arthur (Danny Huston), in nine days and Charlie and Mikey can go free. Will Charlie do it? And what view will Morris’ superiors take of his unusual decision? Either way violence and bleakness will ensue in the ruthless world of the Australian outback.

Scripted by Nick Cave – who also contributed the film’s sparse and haunting score – The Proposition is a dark, challenging and difficult film. It’s bleak, nihilistic and lacking in any real sense of hope or warmth. It presents a world where life is cheap and blood flows freely. All of this set in a wild, open-aired, dead, dry and dusty environment that in its gaping wildness and emptiness seems to consume the men who walk into it and leave them unhinged and capable of any depth of inhumanity.

How can there be any hope for mankind in all this? No wonder Stanley’s wife Martha (an intriguing performance of both optimism and disillusionment walking hand-in-hand from Emily Watson) tries to turn their house into a little slice of England, with a nice fence and traditional garden. It’s almost like she’s trying to slice something recognisable and safe from an environment that feels like it crushes everything it touches. It contrasts with every other ramshackle shack we see in the film, or dusty sandstone building – or the homes that most of the characters fashion among the rocks and the outback. What chance does civilisation have in this wild world?

It’s a world of ruthlessness where life is cheap. The local sport seems to be killing native Australians – something both police and gangs brag about. The native tracker used by the police – played by Walkabout’s David Gulpilil – quietly watches on as his drunken employers celebrate the (mercifully off screen) killing of a group of native Australians accused of murdering an Irish settling family. There is no pardon for him – later his throat is contemptuously slit by one of his fellows who now works as a sharp-shooter with Arthur’s gang. Hillcoat and Cave’s Australia has not a single touch of romance  or fellow feeling, but instead feels like a waiting room for hell.

Stanley is out of place here, not only by his Englishness, but also because his tough and pitiless policing is dwarfed by the cruelty he encounters. Ray Winstone gives one of his finest performances here as a toughened veteran who slowly realises he has only skimmed the surface of the brutality man can show man. Brutal and determined as he is, he has rules – and a wife he loves and a home he values – and that puts him at an utter disadvantage when going up against the amoral likes of Arthur Burns. Winstone’s Stanley also has a sense of fair play – he will struggle in vain to prevent a lethal flogging for Mikey that obsequious town mayor (a very good David Wenham) wants to inflict to placate the town. He frowns on the persecution of the indigenous people and treats his house servant well. Is it any wonder he isn’t remotely prepared for the bloodletting Arthur unleashes when he rides into town?

Danny Huston does excellent work as the poetic Arthur who lacks any touch of empathy. Softly spoken and chillingly calm at all times, with a lilting Irish accent, Arthur slaughters without any mercy and can charmingly undertake any level of depravity and violence. From mutilation to rape, from sudden slaughter to lingering sadism, worst of all it never seems to be personal with Arthur. More just a way of alleviating his own boredom with the world. Is there something about life in the outback that has turned Arthur slowly and quietly insane? Perhaps so, and it fits with Hillcoat and Cave’s nihilistic view of humanity as a destructive force with very little room for hope.

Guy Pearce’s Charlie perhaps offers what little hope we have – and even he is a murderer. Pearce does quiet, generous work in a reactive role, tipped pillar to post and dealing with conflicted family loyalties as well as some sense of right and wrong. Enough of a sense at least to believe wanton murder and destruction as practised by Arthur is too much. Pearce is a quiet, enigmatic figure in the film – perhaps a man struggling to work out where he sits. It’s a performance that cedes a lot of the fireworks elsewhere, with a moral conundrum that is almost deliberately elliptical, but striking nonetheless.

The Proposition is a tough and difficult film. It has a slightly disjointed narrative that at times skips gently over events or moves swiftly from one to another but missing connective events in between. It has the feel of a fever dream, the sort of bizarre tale you might throw together out of half-remembered nightmares. It allows wonderful opportunities for actors – all mentioned, and also John Hurt quite delightful as a drunken but deadly bounty hunter, his wizened looks perfect for the overbearing wilderness. Sure it’s a western that runs rampant with destruction, but it’s also a dark stare into the evil heart of man. It may end with a slight note of hope, but it’s an obscured and uncertain one and mixed in with more than enough suffering and destruction for the survivors.

The Proposition is still the finest film John Hillcoat has directed, and the best balance between compelling story telling and difficult nihilism.

Scum (1979)

Ray Winstone finds prison life a tough proposition in Scum

Director: Alan Clarke

Cast: Ray Winstone (Carlin), Mick Ford (Archer), Julian Firth (Davis), John Blundell (Banks), Phil Daniels (Richards), Alan Igborn (Meakin), Alrick Riley (Angel), Patrick Murray (Dougan), Peter Howell (Governor), John Judd (Mr Sands), Philip Jackson (Mr Greaves), John Grillo (Mr Goodyear), Bill Dean (Mr Duke)

In 1977 Alan Clarke’s searing condemnation of the borstal system in the UK, Scum, was shot as a BBC Play for Today. Outraged at its content, pressure in the press led to the film being banned. But that didn’t change what an electric bit of work it was – and when talk turned to creating a film version, having a filmed version of the script already in existence that could be used as a pitch tool was invaluable. So was born the film version of Scum, with much of the same cast, a higher budget (although still tiny by comparison to other films) and a chance for Clarke to bring his uncompromisingly harsh vision to the big screen.

Three young boys arrive at a borstal: Davis (Julian Firth) is a sensitive youngster who ran away from his previous borstal, Angel (Alrick Riley) a black kid who suffers the systemic racism at every level of the system and Carlin (Ray Winstone) a hard man with a dangerous reputation, who punched a warden at his last borstal. On arrival, the three are identified as requiring being “broken” by staff: Davis is bullied, Angel abused and Carlin is placed at the mercy of the wing’s “Daddy” Banks (John Blundell), suffering beatings with the authorities turning a blind eye. The entire system is rotten to the core and, while Carlin eventually rises up to take over the position of “Daddy”, it changes little in a young offender’s prison rife with racism, sadism, violence, abuse and rape. 

Scum is almost unbelievably grim and pessimistic for this system of incarceration, finding nothing to redeem or excuse the system across its entire running time. The borstal is a wintery hell on Earth, with justice and sympathy nowhere to be seen. While the system claims to be helping its inmates (aged from early teens to early twenties) to find new skills and purpose in life, its real function seems to be trying to beat discipline and subservience into its inmates by all means necessary. While the Governor (a silkly patrician Peter Howell) may talk faith, duty and country he oversees a system where the wardens ruthlessly beat the inmates, encourage them to ‘discipline’ each other, turn a blind eye to violence and abuse, encourage an atmosphere of racial loathing and generally show no concern or interest in any boy’s problem that can’t be solved without punching them in the mouth.

It’s a world Carlin is dropped into, and he knows it well. Played by Ray Winstone with a chippy anger that never seems that far from bursting to the surface, Carlin might want at first to keep his head down but quickly accepts the only way to survive in this dog-eat-dog world is to be the top dog. There will certainly be no justice from the wardens, who beat him on arrival as a trouble-maker, and set the Wing’s alphas on him to break his spirit. Casually beaten in the middle of the night, it’s the bruised Carlin who is sent to solitary confinement for fighting while his attackers go free. He is joined by Davis, framed for theft and Angel, for whom being black seems to be crime enough (walloped by a warden, and spilling food across his room, he is sent down for keeping his cell untidy).

What’s striking in this film though is that, as much as we are meant to think Carlin might be the hero, Clarke is smarter than that. He carefully watches Carlin – a tight-control on Winstone’s face that promises retributive violence is on the way – for almost forty minutes adjust in this system, before he takes matters into his hand. The film’s most famous sequence – shot in one dizzying tracking shot that captures the immediacy of Carlin’s putsch – sees Carlin beat Bank’s weasily sidekick Richards (Phil Daniels) with two snooker balls in a sock, before heading up to his dormitory toilet to beat Banks black-and-blue (and bloody), the cut finally coming to show us Carlin (from Banks POV) screaming at him “I’m the Daddy now”. It’s a masterclass of a sequence, electric in its execution and gives a moment of pleasing oomph (for all its extreme violence) as it shows Carlin finally getting a bit of justice.

Only Carlin’s institution as the Daddy brings largely only a change of figurehead rather than real change. Sure Carlin isn’t quite the bully Banks is, but he’s an unashamed racist, a violent thug, who ruthlessly takes over the money smuggling operation Banks was running (but taking a higher cut) and takes control of another wing by beating its “Daddy” (another black inmate) with an iron bar. Carlin is also quickly adopted by the wardens, just as Banks was, agreeing to maintain peace and control in the borstal in exchange for certain privileges like his own room. Carlin may at first seem to us the angel of retribution – but he’s really a ruthless survivor who is perfectly happy with the status quo so long as he on the top of it.

But then no one has any interest in improving things. The governor is only interested in the appearance of gentility. The wardens couldn’t care less about the rehabilitation of the inmates so long as they have a quiet life. The inmates drift through their life there, never questioning the violence around them. The matron is well-being, but hopelessly rules-bound, whose concern for the boy’s welfare never develops into seeing them as human beings. It’s a systemic failure.

There are other perspectives of course. Possibly the most fascinating character is Mick Ford (replacing David Threlfall in the original production) as Archer, a precociously intelligent inmate in his early twenties, possibly the only one who has read the rulebooks and enjoys running intellectual rings around the wardens. Causing trouble in his “own little way”, he claims to be a vegetarian (requiring a complex set of arrangements to be put in place to feed him separately) and also unable to wear leather boots (requiring his own special plastic boots to be located) and provokes the bible-bashing Governor with thoughts of converting to Islam and Sikhism. 

But he’s also a smart cookie, who recognises (in a fascinating conversation with veteran warder Dukes) that the entire system is a trap, both for the inmates and the wardens, imprisoning them in a system where criminal acts are endemic, the wardens are trapped and brutalised by the system as much as the prisoners and the whole system manifestly fails to do anything other than inoculate Darwinian violence into its inmates (Archer is of course promptly put on report for this cutting analysis). The scene – a key part of the film’s argument – is also a tribute to the skilful writing of Roy Minton, whose script bubbles with both quotable and sadly realistic dialogue.

Clarke’s entire film is the exploration of this violence and the mixture of hypocrisy and denial down to outward condonation and support it receives from the Governor down to the wardens. Any proper review of the conditions in the Borstal is impossible, as it would rock the boat and fly in the face of the positive message the Governor wishes to promote about his institution. Effort is put into putting the boys at loggerheads with each other (usually on racial grounds) as a divide and rule. The weak are happily left at the bottom of the rung, not least the tragic Davis, a sensitive boy (marvellously played by Julian Firth with a heartbreaking vulnerability) totally failed by everyone around him.

Clarke’s final act spins out of a disturbingly intense rape scene of a young inmate (an act witnessed with a sneer by sinister warden Sands, a repulsive John Judd) – the scene a mix of careful filming to show nothing too graphic, and heart-rendering intensity in its vulnerability and violence. The victim is totally ignored, leading to tragic consequences – another difficult to watch scene which hammers home both the cruel indifference of the warders and the helplessness of the victim. The eventual riot this is all leading too is, however, painfully futile: scapegoats are selected at random and beaten senseless, the status quo is reinforced by a bland platitude speech from the Governor. 

Directed with fire and passion by Alan Clarke, a virtuoso of realism and master of social conscious, Scumis a masterpiece of anger, of boiling resentment against systems that do not work and do not care that they do not work. Packed with astonishing performances and some sublime camera work and film-making skill, it’s a must-see.

Cold Mountain (2003)

Nicole Kidman and Jude Law are souls in love separated by war in Cold Mountain

Director: Anthony Minghella

Cast: Jude Law (WP Inman), Nicole Kidman (Ada Monroe), Renée Zellweger (Ruby Thewes), Eileen Atkins (Maddy), Kathy Baker (Sally Swanger), James Gammon (Esco Swanger), Brendan Gleeson (Stobrod Thewes), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Reverend Veasey), Natalie Portman (Sara), Giovanni Ribisi (Junior), Lucas Black (Oakley), Donald Sutherland (Reverend Monroe), Cillian Murphy (Bardolph), Jack White (Georgia), Ray Winstone (Teague), Melora Walters (Lila), Charlie Hunnam (Bosie)

There was no difficult novel Anthony Minghella couldn’t adapt for the big screen. Cold Mountain is as beautiful and handsome a film as any he made, and his masterful scripting of a complex story is testament to his skill. So why is Cold Mountain not more loved? Is it because it’s almost too well made, too handsomely mounted, too literary and intelligent? Is it, actually, trying a little too hard? Is it a Cold Mountain itself, a giant structure of beauty but with an icy heart?

Based on Charles Frazier’s novel, set in the final days of the American Civil War, confederate soldier Inman (Jude Law), knowing the war is lost, deserts to return to the woman he loves, Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman). The two of them have only spoken a few times but they feel a deep personal bond. During the years of war, poverty has hit preacher’s daughter Ada, although she has crafted a life-changing friendship with 18th century trailer trash Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger) which has helped her survive. As Inman’s odyssey home leads to him encountering a number of different vignettes that show the despair Civil War has brought to America, Ada struggles to survive and avoid the sinister attentions of home guard enforcer Teague (Ray Winstone).

There is so much to admire in Cold Mountain I want to start there. The photography is beautiful, and the film is assembled with a striking grace and skill. Walter Murch’s editing and sound design is perfect, with each shot of the film being fabulously composed and each carrying a specific message and purpose that contributes to the overall impact. The use of music – a collaboration between T Bone Burnett and Gabriel Yared – is perfect, a series of wonderful period compositions and impactful orchestral pieces. 

Everything about how Minghella captures the feel of the time, the mood of the South heading into war, and the disintegration of social conventions as the war takes hold and lays waste to the land, rings completely true. From the celebrations of the young men at the film’s start, to the increasingly haunted, tragic look of Jude Law’s Inman as he discovers new horrors at every point in his journey, you know war is hell. Minghella ironically opens the film with a catastrophic defeat for the North – but the slaughter disgusts Inman, and his burial under mounds of rubble during an explosion leads to a spiritual rebirths with Inman deciding senseless killing isn’t worth the candle any more. In a war of willing volunteers, how do we respond when these volunteers don’t want to keep fighting?

And why should they, as each of the various vignettes Inman walks through is a wasteland of moral collapse? From a sex-obsessed preacher (an amusing performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who has lost his morals to a tragic widow desperately trying to feed her baby (Natalie Portman, effectively stealing the whole show with an intense performance of utter desolation), everything Inman sees shows that nothing is worth all this. The film gets a very good sense of the drive that pushes Inman forward: constantly moving, he’s rarely seen sitting or resting. Each of the Odyssey-inspired stories gives him something to reflect on, or another opportunity for moral and emotional torment , from dragging bodies in a chain gang to avoiding the lustful advances of a group of hillbilly sirens who trap deserters for money.

Meanwhile, things ain’t much better on the homefront, where corrupt bullies like Teague (a slightly too obvious Ray Winstone) are enforcing their own law at the expense of justice. Poverty is also the impact of war, and poor Ada suffers hugely from this, as supplies run low and eventually out. Minghella’s swift and skilful establishment of character shows from the start how Ada is a stranger in a strange land, a middle-class town girl who is completely unsuited for country life and utterly unready to fend for herself when the chips are down without support. 

Is it any wonder in this world, that Inman and Ada cling to memories? Part of the film’s effect depends on how you respond to the romantic bond between these two clinging to a few brief moments (a few exchanges and one immensely passionate kiss on the day of Inman’s departure). It’s an old-fashioned, sweeping, love story and it depends on you relating to that old-fashioned mythic love story. I’m not sure that the film quite sells this as effectively as it could do. Somehow, perhaps because Inman is so insular and Ada a little too difficult to relate to, the passion between them can’t quite carry the sweep that the film demands, even as Minghella skilfully intercuts between them.

Nicole Kidman in particular feels miscast as Ada. Kidman is too intelligent, too determined and strong a performer to convince as a woman who is unable to look after herself and nearly succumbs to fear – she’s just not an actress I can picture cowering in fear in front of an angry rooster. Kidman does her best, but the character never really wins the sympathy that we need for the performance to work. Jude Law has much more to work with as Inman, brilliantly communication a whole world of feeling with very little dialogue. 

What works less well with Law is that his plotline just doesn’t quite grip enough. The vignettes are often entertaining, but feel like episodic sketches, and the sense of a building picture of the despair of the South doesn’t quite come into shape as much in practice as it does in theory. Frankly, after a while, you are ready for Inman’s journey to come to an end and for him to intersect with Ada’s plotline back at Cold Mountain (which is built around a consistent group of characters who engage our interest).

In the home front storyline you’ll be relieved with the entrance (almost an hour into the film) of Renée Zellweger’s blowsy Ruby, a loud-mouthed, trailer-trash woman with a heart of gold and a mastery of farming who effectively saves Ada’s life. It’s a loud, big, Oscar-winning performance from Zellweger that plays with being a little broad, but is skilfully balanced by the slow reveal that this personality is a cover that Ruby uses to hide her own pain. Added to this depth, her heart-warming presence carries such simple pleasure and colour compared to the more muted performances from the leads that you welcome it. 

Because Inman and Ada don’t quite work as a romantic couple. There is something slightly cold about them, slightly hard to relate to. And for all the intense and brilliant construction and filming of the film – and the mastery of Minghella’s writing and direction – it never makes them into the sort of classic romantic couple you care for. You want to connect with it more than you ever really do, and whether that is down to miscasting or the lack of intense chemistry between them I’m not sure, but it means Cold Mountain never becomes the great romantic tragedy it should be. You want a film this good to be as good as it feels – and it never quite is.

King of Thieves (2018)

Michael Caine leads the Old Lags on one last hurrah in the misjudged King of Thieves

Director: James Marsh

Cast: Michael Caine (Brian Reader), Jim Broadbent (Terry Perkins), Tom Courtenay (John Kenny Collins), Charlie Cox (Basil/Michael Seed), Paul Whitehouse (Carl Wood), Michael Gambon (Billy “The Fish” Lincoln), Ray Winstone (Danny Jones), Francesca Annis (Lynne Reader)

In 2015, a group of old lags robbed a safety deposit company in Hatton Garden. Over the Easter weekend, the gang broke while the facility was empty, drilled through a wall, climbed into the safe and cleared out almost £14 million in cash, diamonds and other goods. The crime captured the public imagination largely because the robbers, bar one member of the gang, were all over 60. This country has a certain nostalgia for rogues, and a tendency towards a condescending affection for the aged. In real life, the only thing remotely charming about these hardened criminals, many of them with extremely violent backgrounds, was their age.

James Marsh pulls together a great cast of actors for his heist caper. Brian Reader, the brains behind the operation, is played with gravitas by Michael Caine. Terry Perkins, the man who cuts Reader out of the profits, is played by Jim Broadbent. Tom Courtenay, Ray Winstone, Paul Whitehouse and Michael Gambon play the rest of the lags while Charlie Cox is the young tech expert who brings the possibility of the heist to Reader’s attention. With a cast like this, it’s a shame the overall film is a complete mess from start to finish.

I watched this film after first watching ITV’s forensically detailed four-part series, Hatton Garden, covering the heist in full detail. That drama was far from perfect, but it was vastly superior to this. The main strength of Hatton Garden was that it never, ever lost sight of the fact that this was not a victimless crime. Real-life small businesses went bust due to property lost in the heist. Families lost priceless, irreplaceable heirlooms. Items of hugely sentimental value have never been recovered. Lives were damaged. On top of that, Hatton Garden stresses the grimy lack of glamour to these thieves, their greed, their paranoia, their aggression and their capacity for violence. Far from charming rogues, they are selfish, greedy old men who fall over themselves to betray each other and are clueless about the powers and abilities of the modern police force.

King of Thieves occasionally tries to remind people that these were hardened career criminals. But it also wants us to have a great time watching actors we love carry out a heist against the odds, like some sort of Ocean’s OAPs. James Marsh never manages to make a consistent decision on the angle he is taking on these men or the crime they carried out. It’s half a comedy, half a drama and the tone and attitude towards the burglars yo-yos violently from scene to scene. The end result, basically, is to let them off with a slap on the wrist.

“It’s patronising” rages Reader at one point at the media coverage of the crime, annoyed at how it stresses their age as if that somehow makes it a jolly jaunt. Never mind that the film does the same. The score contributes atrociously to this, a series of jazzy, caperish tunes that echo the 60s heydays of these violent men (Reader and Perkins had both stood trial for murders, and were lucky to get off) punctured with some cheesily predictable songs. Tom Jones plays as our heroes comes together, and Shirley Bassey warbles The Party’s Over as things fall apart. The old men banter and bicker about the confusions of the modern world like a series of talking heads from Grumpy Old Men and the general mood is one of light comedy.

The film does try and darken the tone in the second half, post-robbery, as things start to fall apart and tensions erupt in the gang. Here we get a little bit of the mettle of the actors involved in this. Jim Broadbent, in particular, goes way against type as Perkins’ capacity of violence (even at a diabetes-wracked 67) starts to emerge. Tom Courtenay’s Kenny Collins emerges as manipulative liar, playing off the robbers against each other. Ray Winstone sprays foul language around with a pitbull aggression. Even Michael Caine roars a few death threats, furious at being betrayed by the gang.

But it never really takes, because the film never throws in any sense of the victims of this crime. Blood is never drawn in this slightly darker sequence of the film. Even the clashes between the gang are played at times for light relief. Anything outside the gang is ignored. The victims? Who cares. The cops? There is barely a policeman in this film who has a line.

The film undermines the whole point it might be trying to make – that these were dangerous men – by succumbing to romanticism at its very end. As the captured old lags await trial, we first see them laughing and joking with each other as they prep for court and then, as they walk towards the dock, the film throws up old footage of the actors from the 60s, 70s and 80s, stressing their romanticism. Look, the film seems to be saying: these were criminals, but they were old fashioned criminals, remember when Britain used to make its own underdog crims instead of being awash with hardened, violent gangs? It’s hard to take. And it’s like the whole film. A tonal mess that finally absolves the robbers who ruined lives and who still haven’t returned almost £10 million of ordinary people’s goods. King of Thieves isn’t charming. It’s alarming.

Beowulf (2007)

A CGI Ray Winstone faces off against monsters, temptation and fate in Beowulf

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Cast: Ray Winstone (Beowulf), Anthony Hopkins (King Hrothgar), John Malkovich (Unferth), Robin Wright (Queen Wealtheow), Angelina Jolie (Grendel’s Mother), Crispin Glover (Grendel), Brendan Gleeson (Wiglaf), Alison Lohman (Ursula)

Around the turn of the century a new style of film-making (and I guess acting) burst into the world of Hollywood. There had been special effects and there had been animation. We’d seen actors transplanted by CGI into any number of settings and locations. But motion-capture was something else. Its leading pioneer is of course Andy Serkis, and the art involved essentially placing a load of dots on people’s faces to record every inch of their movements and then feed this physical performance into a computer to create a CGI personality that unified actor and special effect. 

Zemeckis, always a pioneering film maker, was fascinated by the art and had used it on previous films – but Beowulf was his real push to create something that couldn’t have been done without motion capture. So Ray Winstone – a bulky middle aged actor – is here transformed through the computer into a slim, muscular man in his early thirties. Winstone plays Beowulf himself, and Zemeckis’ aim here was to bring to life in a way that had never been done before the ancient poem. And not only the humans would be motion captured: Grendel and his mother (played by Crispin Glover and Angelina Jolie) would also be powered by real-life human performances.

It makes a fascinating film visually to watch. Zemeckis’ camera work has the complete freedom to roam anywhere around the actors (every move they made was recorded into the computer from every angle). And he doesn’t hold back, with the camera swooping and sliding around every dimension and angle of the locations, often moving freely and swiftly with a series of engrossing tracking shots and fast moving sweeping panoramas. 

It also means that having real performances behind every creature in the film adds a real human dimension to even the most vile monsters. Crispin Glover’s physical commitment – not to mention the searing, twisted pain in his every moment – humanises Grendel in a way his simple monstrous appearance never could. The later dragon has a real feeling of humanity behind it, for all its scales and arrogant cruelty. Angelina Jolie reported she felt surprisingly uncomfortable when she saw the final realisation of her performance as Grendel’s mother – imagined here as an extremely seductive succubus, permanently naked with perfectly formed curves – but the entire thing works because of the performance behind the animation.

Some of the motion capture isn’t always of course completely successful. There is something still slightly too shiny, slightly too polished about the faces – part of the film being a slightly strange halfway gap between animation and real acting. The eyes suffer most – for all the efforts of the animators there is something still slightly dead behind, something not quite of the human face about them. It’s something that you can’t help but spot, and can’t help but be disconcerted about.

But it largely comes second to some of the imagination that exists in this version of the story. Zemeckis’ film making is often visceral and bloody – and the action sequences are as involving as he manages to make the other sequences are engaging. Not everything works: Beowulf fights Grendel in the nude, and the decision to have Beowulf’s ‘bits’ constantly obstructed by a series of fortuously placed items smacks somewhat of Monty Python and seems tonally off from the rest of the film. But by and large it works.

It does this because the script from Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery mixes the original poem with something reminiscent of Macbeth. One of its key themes is the seduction of power and the inner guilt of heroes who know that they have feet of clay. Grendel is reimagined as the son of Hrothgar – seduced by Grendel’s mother with offers of power, he creates with her Grendel, the living embodiment of his flaws. Grendel’s mother represents the creeping temptation of greed, ambition and the “old ways” (the film plays up the Christianisation of the Vikings in the background throughout). She’s effectively all the witches rolled into one (but much hotter).

And Beowulf is ripe ground for our temptations as it’s made clear right from the start that – while clearly a great warrior – he is also a triumphalist blowhard who enjoys repeating and expanding his own myth. A story recounted about his fighting sea monsters during an epic sea swimming competition (‘It used to be just one’ comments best friend Wilfric) is a masterpiece of puffed up self-promotion on top of genuinely impressive deeds, Beowulf’s words diverging from the story we see on screen towards in the end is a neat foreshadowing of his eventual seduction by Grendel’s mother. 

Beowulf isn’t an empty boaster though. He’s a sympathetic Macbeth who feels guilt about the “sound and fury” that his life story has become. The aged Beowulf in the second half of the film is weary, tired and full of self-loathing, his great name an oppressive weight he can’t live up to or escape from. He’s a man who knows all the time he has feet of clay, but the name of a God – and that the name is so important he can’t let anything puncture it. Wilfric twice refuses to allow Beowulf to divest his conscience: the legend is so important it’s been printed as fact.

Ray Winstone handles this all pretty well – even if a lot of this requires sorrow behind the eyes, that motion capture simply can’t provide – even if the transformation of his face makes him look more like Sean Bean than a younger version of himself. Hopkins and Malkovich embrace all the cavorting and expressive body movement of motion capture like the old hams they can be. The film’s real highlight is Robin Wright who makes a great deal of Hrothgar then Beowulf’s sad wife, unhappy, quietly aware of both her husband’s flaws and perhaps the only level headed person in the Kingdom.

Beowulf has some fine technical work, but its real lasting interest is the psychological depths it tries to explore in its hero. Far from the perfect warrior, he’s someone doubtful and doubting, whose insecurities and vulnerabilities grow throughout the film and finally – like a mix of Lear and Macbeth – only becomes fully sympathetic at the very end. It makes for an interesting remix of a story nearly older than any other in our culture.

Noah (2014)

Russell Crowe is getting ready for action as the rains come to Noah

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Cast: Russell Crowe (Noah), Jennifer Connelly (Naameh), Emma Watson (Ila), Ray Winstone (Tubal-Cain), Logan Lerman (Ham), Douglas Booth (Shem), Anthony Hopkins (Methuselah), Marton Csorkas (Lamech), Nick Nolte (Samyaza), Frank Langella (Og)

Everyone kind of understands what they are going to get when watching a Biblical epic right? A lot of “thous” and “thees”, sandals and swords, priests with long beards, sweeping musical scores and an actor like Charlton Heston (ideally just Charlton Heston) at the centre, standing tall with the word of God behind him. Obviously Darren Aronofsky must have been unfamiliar with this formula as he put together Noah, without a shadow of a doubt the weirdest Biblical epic you are ever going to see.

Set at a time that could be thousands of years either in the future or the past (with a steam-punk aesthetic and timeless mix of ancient and medieval technology with hints at modern ruins), God has had enough of man wrecking the world. He sends a cryptic vision to Noah (Russell Crowe), last descendent of Abel, telling him that a flood will take out the world. Noah will build an ark to protect the animals – but Noah also becomes convinced that God’s will is that mankind will not survive the flood. After Noah and his children die that’s it. This fanaticism is met with concern by his family, but also with fury from the rest of mankind led by descendant of Cain, Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone). 

And that’s only scratching the surface of the film’s trippy eccentricity. The story of the ark is familiar to generations of children, and the image of Noah as a jolly bearded fella saving the animals like some sort of nautical Doctor Doolittle is one we all share. Aronofsky remixes this into a more adult mood by reminding us that this bloke was also happy to stand by and watch the rest of mankind drown, and followed the word of God with a fanatical monomania. Noah is, for large chunks of this film, not a nice bloke. As he tells son Shem “He chose me because he knew I would finish the job”. No hugs on this boat.

It makes sense that Noah is embodied by Russell Crowe at his most gritty. Going through a series of haircuts that reflect his journey from nature lover to chosen man of God to fanatical cult leader through to reborn family man, Crowe gives the role a blunt determination and earthiness ­– so much so you half expect him to address everyone as “mate”. But it’s essential for Aronofsky’s reimagining of the role as part environmentalist part cult leader. Noah is uncompromising, unshakeable and totally certain that all his decisions come direct from God, ergo they are unquestionable. As he shows time and time again in the film, he is willing to commit actions that are at best morally questionable, at worst down right bad, to do what needs to be done.

He’s the man who is willing to watch his crapsack world burn (or rather drown) and feel that, yes, it is good. Aronofsky’s vision of this wasteland of a world fits this perfectly. Resources are low, mankind has turned (it is heavily implied) partly cannibal, industry has destroyed nature, the law of man has become the law of the strong. There is a clear modern parallel here with environmentalism, and Noah himself is strongly reimagined as a man with a deep respect for nature – and the balance mankind must make with it; and the danger of us burning through our resources with no regard for the future is a major theme throughout the film. 

Evil mankind is represented by Ray Winstone as Tubal-Cain. Greedy, selfish, ambitious and a demagogue, Winstone is at his most physically imposing and dangerous here, a fitting obstacle for this reimagined muscular Noah. Aronofsky does however acknowledge that, for all his faults – and his unashamed embracing of violence – Tubal-Cain does have a point: it’s not fair for all of mankind to be sentenced to oblivion with no chance to save itself, regardless of their personal morality.

This uncomfortable darkness behind the story of Noah – and the destruction of mankind by their creator – is one of many things that made some Christians uncomfortable with the film. The Creator (as he is referred to throughout the film) is noticeable by his silence, speaking only to Noah through dreams and everyone else, not at all. Noah’s hardline interpretation of God’s plans (extinction) is enforced by him with all the obsession of a fanatic (a large chunk of the second half of the film is given over to the danger of an expectant mother sharing a boat with a man who has stated his intention to end the race with his immediate family). Of course the film shows Noah eventually changing his mind (and getting royally pissed in self-disgust at his lack of will), but it’s a way darker tone to take for a story more familiar to people through children’s playsets.

Aronofsky places this film at a hinge point of what sort of race are we. It’s expressed in several scenes that mankind is still fighting the struggle between Cain and Abel. Is it violence and strength that wins out? Or are there better qualities in man that can end the cycle of destruction? What sort of world has man built – and what sort of world does Noah believe could emerge from the floods? Striking imagery accompanies this musing throughout, not least a flashback to Cain killing Abel in silhouette against a blue dappled starry night sky – an image that shifts and changes at one point to replace the brothers with antagonists from our entire history of warfare.

There are miracles and divine power in this film, but its actions seem to be based around inspiring fear and obedience rather than devotion. Forests spring from the ground for Noah to build from. Geysers of water take out mankind. Fires take out armies. There are moments of gentleness – a woman given back her ability to have children, rainbows etc. – but the Creator is a hard taskmaster. Noah is assisted by a gang of fallen angels – the Watchers – who, as punishment for siding with mankind when Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, were thrown to the ground and encased in stone, turning them into freakish, gangly, giant rock monsters. Despite this, they retain their devotion to their creator – and their assistance is essential for the construction of the ark.

The inclusion of Giant Rock Monsters shows you again how far off the Biblical beaten track Aronofsky goes. This same embracing of unconventional oddness is seen throughout the film’s aesthetic – dirty clothes that have been cobbled together from several different eras, hints of metalwork and industrial ruins throughout Tubal-Cain’s kingdom, blasted wastelands – it’s miles away from The Ten Commandments. But it all sort of works because, regardless of his eccentricity, Aronofsky is a unique and intelligent director of visuals and his work is full of striking images and staging that draws inspirations from all over the shop, from old films to classical children’s story book images from Biblical tales.

Noah ain’t perfect. It’s overlong and its genre defying oddness occasionally feels a little too much. It suffers from the fact that the visuals and themes are so overwhelming that they crush most of the characters: Jennifer Connolly has little to do as Noah’s wife, while Emma Watson et al playing various Noah family members are left with just crusts to chew on. But embrace its bizarreness and the points it wants to make and you are left with a film that is quite unlike anything else you are likely to see. Aronofsky has made a Biblical epic unlike any that has ever, or will ever, be made. And that at least is worth some praise.

King Arthur (2004)

Clive Owen leads his merry men in clumsy would-be Arthurian epic King Arthur

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Cast: Clive Owen (Arthur), Ioan Gruffudd (Lancelot), Keira Knightley (Guinevere), Stellan Skarsgård (Cerdric), Ray Winstone (Bors), Mads Mikkelsen (Tristan), Joel Edgerton (Gawain), Hugh Dancy (Galahad), Ray Stevenson (Dagonet), Stephen Dillane (Merlin), Til Schweiger (Cyrnic)

The story of King Arthur has entertained generations for so long, it’s actually a bit of a surprise that there hasn’t been a great movie made about it. Sure there have been entertaining guilty pleasures (like my love for the bobbins Excalibur) but there hasn’t been a great action adventure made about the legendary king. And this Jerry Bruckheimer actioner sure ain’t it. But it re-enforces my seemingly never-ending appetite for distinctly poor, big-budget, epic films.

Arthur (Clive Owen) is a half-Celtic Roman cavalry officer who commands a Sarmatian cavalry unit, serving a fixed term of service with Rome. They help to guard Hadrian’s Wall against rebel native Britons. Before their discharge, the knights are given one last job: go behind enemy lines to rescue a prominent Roman citizen living beyond the wall. Once they arrive, they find he has enslaved the local Brits – including imprisoning a young woman named Guinevere (Keira Knightley). Knowing a Saxon invasion force lead by the fearsome Cerdric (Stellan Skarsgård) is ravaging Britain – and that the Romans are withdrawing from the empire – Arthur decides to lead the whole group back to the wall and safety.

King Arthur isn’t a terrible film, just a totally mediocre one. It’s an uninspired coupling together of half-a-dozen other better movie: from its Dirty Dozen line-up, through its Gladiator style score (Hans Zimmer rips himself off again), to its remix of a thousand period sword epics from Spartacus on, mixed with its Braveheart style design and battle scenes. It’s almost completely unoriginal from start to finish. There is no inspiration here at all – it’s made by people who have seen other films and based everything on that rather than wanting to make a film themselves.

It even wraps itself up with an unseemly haste, as if all involved knew they hadn’t nailed it so decided the best thing to was to knock the whole thing on the head and call it a bad job.

The film probably stumbles from the start with its claim to present a sort of “true historical story” of King Arthur. Now I’m not one to get hung up on historical accuracy too much – except when it’s making extravagant claims which are just not true – but the “true story” here is bobbins. Nothing really feels right – from the Roman politics to the idea of a group of loaded Roman settlers setting up a huge estate deep into Scotland (I mean what the fuck was Hadrian’s Wall for eh?). The knights bear very little resemblance indeed to their legendary counterpoints. In fact it’s almost as if they had a script about a brave band of Roman soldiers and just stuck the name King Arthur on it for the name recognition (perish the thought!).

The idea of a group of seasoned, grizzled warriors isn’t a bad one – and it works rather well here because most of the actors in these roles are pretty good (particularly Mads Mikkelsen as a sort of Samurai Tristan). It makes for some interesting dynamics and always some fine character work – the best arc going to Ray Stevenson’s Dagonet as a knight who finds something to fight for. It also contrasts rather well with Stellan Skarsgard’s world-weary villain, who’s seen it all and finds it hard to get excited about ravaging and pillaging anymore.

But it’s a shame that this promising set-up gets wasted. After a good start, when we get to see all our heroes’ personalities reflected in their fighting styles as they repel an attack on a bishop, these dynamics quickly settle down into the usual tropes: you’ve got the joker, the cocky one, the reluctant one who’s only out for himself… Fortunately the Director’s Cut (which I watched) deletes the worst of Ray Winstone’s comic “banter”, but it’s still pretty standard stuff.

The mission behind the wall then pretty much follows the pattern you would expect: the guy they go to rescue is an unsympathetic bastard, they find themselves protecting the weak, it’s a dangerous journey back to safety, blah-blah-blah. Although a battle on the ice has some genuine excitement to it, there isn’t anything new here at all. Everyone just feels like they are going through the motions. 

When the battles kick off in earnest, they are pretty well mounted – even if they are hugely reminiscent of the opening battle of Gladiator and the low-camera, immersive battles of Braveheart. Sure there is a smoky immediacy about them, like a sword wielding Saving Private Ryan, but it’s still pretty much what you would expect. The action pans out with no real surprises – our heroes and villains even match up for the expected clashes.

Clive Owen is a fine actor, but he is manifestly wrong for the role of a classical hero and the awe-inspiring battlefield heroics he is called to carry out here. He’s too modern an actor, with too much of the world-weary smoothness to him, for him to really convince as this hardened medieval warrior. Owen’s delivery and style is so restrained he can’t bring the bombast or elemental force the part requires. Allegedly he was cast because Bruckheimer believed he would be the next James Bond – the actor they turned down for Arthur? Daniel Craig… 

Nope. Sorry.

Similarly Kiera Knightley is just as miscast. Let’s put aside the fact that she is half Owen’s age. There is a prep school headgirlishness to her that just doesn’t work when we are asked to buy her as woad-covered warrior princess. She’s too strait-laced, too polite, too sophisticated. When she does step into the full-on Boudicca look, you’ll giggle rather than tremble. For all her exertion, she’s not convincing in the role either.

But then that’s King Arthur all over: trying hard but not convincing, with such a tenuous link back to the original myth that the fact they are just using the Arthur name to flog some more tickets is all the more obvious. Major elements of the legend are missing – in particular the Arthur-Lancelot-Guinevere love triangle is cut down to the merest of suggestions, enough for it to be noticed but not enough for it to feel like a real plot – and other elements (Merlin, the Sword in the Stone, the Round Table) seem shoe-horned in for no real effect. It’s basically just a bombastic B-movie, a sort of Gladiator rip-off without the poetry. Moments of fun, but still not that good.