Tag: Sam Neill

My Brilliant Career (1979)

My Brilliant Career (1979)

Edgy and very good feminist film about a prickly and difficult woman struggling against a lack of choice

Director: Gillian Armstrong

Cast: Judy Davis (Sybylla Melvyn), Sam Neill (Harry Beecham), Wendy Hughes (Aunt Helen), Robert Grubb (Frank Hawdon), Max Cullen (Peter McSwatt), Pat Kennedy (Aunt Gussie), Aileen Britton (Grandma Bossier), Peter Whitford (Uncle Julius)

In turn of the century Australia, it’s fair to say women were not awash with choices as Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) discovers. Growing up on a dust covered farm, she dreams of becoming something – an artist, a singer, a writer, a connoisseur of culture, anything rather than spending her life as a wife and mother. She is dispatched by her parents to her wealthy maternal grandmother (Aileen Britton), determined to scrub her up, shave off her rough edges and find her a good marriage. Sybylla resists, but much to her surprise finds herself attracted to old childhood friend, Harry Beecham (Sam Neill). But will Sybylla choose marriage over finding her own path in life?

Adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel by Miles Franklin (the pen name of Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin), My Brilliant Career was a feminist watershed in Australian cinema, also one of the first Australian films directed by a woman. Gillian Armstrong was fascinated by a story that, while a period piece, still spoke strongly to a time when women were moving out of stereotypical traditional roles they had been pigeon-holed into. My Brilliant Career is a costume drama that looks at the stark reality for women at the time (wife, mother or “spinster”). And while men could dream of lives of cultural and artistic fulfilment or economic ambition, women faced innumerable barriers.

The frustrations help explain why Sybylla is such a prickly, at times maddening, frustrated woman trapped in a constant stream of situations where her choices are narrow or she cannot decide what she wants. On her parents’ farm, her interest in art and classical music turns her into a sort of freakish bluestocking (or larrakin), her slow plonking of Schumann on the family’s out-of-tune piano sounding to them like sounds from the end of the world. Among the well-off hoi polloi of Australia, she seems scruffy and wild and her knowledge of working-class drinking songs and enjoyment of rough-and-tumble games and dancing lead to raised eyebrows (it’s telling she switches to playing the bawdy tunes of her parents’ local drinking hole on the grand piano of her grandmother’s house – she is an outsider everywhere she goes).

Sybylla is brought to life in a sensational, star-making performance by Judy Davis. Davis isn’t afraid to make Sybylla often difficult and even a little unlikeable. She’s capricious and often infuriatingly vague about what she wants. She has high-blown dreams of an artistic life, with no fixed idea about what that might mean. She is adamantly opposed to marriage, but flirts outrageously. She scorns the uncultured dirt of the poor but finds the fussy exactitude of the rich oppressive. She’s a mass of contradictory and confused impulses, all caught up in her limited opportunities: marry as everyone wants her to do and, even if she loves the man, say goodbye to the ability to make her own choices.

This is captured perfectly in Davis’ shabby impertinence. She makes Sybylla someone never afraid to speak her mind: smutty jokes at dinner tables, blunt refusals of “I’m-doing-you-a-favour” proposals. Davis makes her defiant and difficult, but also strangely vulnerable (she’s very sensitive about her appearance – not surprising considering barely a scene goes by without someone commenting on her plainness, freckles, messy hair or some combination of all three). Davis charges about the screen with a masculine tom-boyishness. She trudges through fields, clambers up trees, drives horse and carts with aggressive pace. She rarely looks comfortable in her clothes. She has a sharp, at times even cruel, sense of humour, never suffers fools and doesn’t allow anyone to talk down to her.

Armstrong’s film however makes clear this is all in the nature of the teething problems of a young woman still mystified about what she wants from life. And who can blame Sybylla at the unattractiveness of the various alternatives put to her (basically a range of glorified servant roles). She is even dispatched to serve as a governess to a group of scruffy farm children, again tellingly the only time she truly embraces the comfort of formal clothes, as if cementing her place as not among the mud. (This sequence does show Sybylla’s social flexibility as, much to her surprise, she forms a bond with these coarse workers.) It’s a situation made particularly difficult when she has two viable suitors thrust at her.

The first she can dismiss with ease – a pompous stuff-shirt played with smackable smugness by Frank Hawdon. The other is far more viable: a kindred-spirit of a sort played by an attractively charismatic Sam Neill. Harry and Sybylla capture in each other the exact qualities the other finds attractive but would cause long-term disaster in marriage. Sybylla is attracted to Harry’s humour and intelligence but would find his settled landowning life restrictive. Harry is drawn to Sybylla’s free-spirited independence but long-term would find it infuriating. Nevertheless, the temptation to marry is strong for both of them.

Armstrong’s film expertly builds the unspoken, awkward courtship between these two. They take it in turns to ignore and provoke jealousy in each other. When thrown together they go from surly silence into bawdy flirtation (including an epic outdoor pillow-fight across Harry’s farmland). The question always remains though whether marriage is the right choice for either of them. Not least as it would potentially end Sybylla’s dreams of exploring the world and her place in it.

My Brilliant Career is lusciously designed (by Luciana Arrighi) and beautifully shot (by Donald McAlpine). Gillian Armstrong brings a strong visual eye to the film – there are some superb compositions involving windows and walls creating visual barriers between characters and some terrific transitions (the finest being a cut that visually compares Sybylla’s beside her bed with her mother in her dining room at home). The film builds a wonderfully subtle feminist picture, with several women – Sybylla’s mother who has married for love and found poverty, her aunt (well played by Wendy Hughes) jilted by an unsuitable husband, her great aunt who chose freedom but is deeply lonely – presenting potential life paths that further illustrate the paucity of choice.

It makes for a prickly but eventually very involving film, with a sly wit, very well filmed that gradually makes us care deeply for a character who is initially as irritating and challenging for the viewer as she can be for the characters. With a brilliant performance by Judy Davis, My Brilliant Career is an important milestone in the Australian New Wave and a superb debut for Gillian Armstrong, that mixes strong thematic ideas and beautiful visuals.

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

Shailing into Hishtory! The Hunt for Red October is the finest Tom Clancy adaptation made

Director: John McTiernan

Cast: Sean Connery (Captain Marko Ramius), Alec Baldwin (Jack Ryan), Joss Ackland (Ambassador Andrei Lysenko), Tim Curry (Dr Petrov), Peter Firth (Ivan Putin), Scott Glenn (Commander Burt Mancuso), James Earl Jones (Admiral James Greer), Jeffrey Jones (Skip Tyler), Richard Jordan (National Security Advisor Jeffrey Pelt), Sam Neill (Captain Vasily Borodin), Stellan Skarsgård (Captain Viktor Tupolev), Fred Dalton Thompson (Rear Admiral Joshua Painter), Courtenay B Vance (PO Jones)

“We shail into Hishtory!” It’s the film that launched a thousand Sean Connery impressions. Only Connery could get away with playing a Soviet submarine captain with the thickest Scottish accent this side of Lithuania. He only took the role – from Klaus Maria Brandauer – at short notice, but he’s a pivotal part of the film’s success. The Hunt for Red October is a superb film, the finest Tom Clancy adaptation ever made and one of the cornerstones of the submarine genre. It expertly mixes beats of conspiracy, espionage, naval adventure and even touches of comedy, into a superbly entertaining cocktail.

Connery is Captain Marko Ramius, the USSR’s finest naval captain, given command of The Red October on its maiden voyage. The Red October is equipped with a technical miracle: a “caterpillar drive” that uses a water powered engine to run silently, making it invisible to sonar. So why is the entire Russian fleet being scrambled to find and sink the submarine? Could it be, as the USSR tells the US, that Ramius has gone mad and plans a nuclear strike? Or is it, as CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) argues, because Ramius plans to defect and bring the technological marvel with him?

Of course, we know Connery plans to defect. After all, we’ve already seen him murder shifty political officer Ivan Putin (Peter Firth – to whom alphabetical billing is very kind) and tell his handpicked crew of officers, led by loyal second-in-command Borodin (Sam Neill, so dedicated to affecting a Russian accent it’s as if he felt he needed to do in on behalf of himself and Connery) that there is no turning back. The film’s expert tension – and it rachets it up with all the precision of a well-oiled machine – is working out how. How will Ramius evade the Russian fleet? How will he manage to arrange his defection without communicating with the US? And will he and Ryan – unknowingly working together – persuade the US not to blow The Red October out of the water?

With McTiernan, in his prime, at the helm it’s not a surprise the film is expertly assembled. The parallel plot lines are beautifully intercut. Our two heroes, Ramius and Ryan, face very different obstacles (dodging Soviet torpedoes vs patiently making his case to sceptical superiors mixed with risky long-range travels to far-flung US subs) but somehow seem to be building a bond before they even meet. Ryan is an expert on Ramius and his career, while his thoughtful, good-natured decency is exactly the sort of American Ramius tells his crew they need to meet (as opposed to “some sort of buckaroo” – a word Connery relishes).

McTiernan isn’t just an expert mechanic though. There are lovely touches of invention and magic here. The Hunt for Red October has possibly one of the finest transitions ever. Connery, Neill et al start the film speaking in Russian. Ramius meets with Firth’s Putin (great name) in his quarters to open their orders. The two chat briefly in Russian, then Putin reads from Ramius’ copy of the Book of Revelations. As Firth reads (in fluent, expertly accented Russian), McTiernan slowly zooms in on his lips until he reaches the word “Armageddon” (the same in both languages) – the camera then zooms out and both Firth and Connery continue the scene in English (Firth switching mid-shot from Russian to English without missing a beat). It’s a beautifully done transition, rightly a stand-out moment.

But then it’s a film full of them. Many rely on Connery’s performance, superb as Ramius (this was his career purple patch, where one effortlessly excellent performance followed another). Ramius has a grizzled sea-dog charm and a twinkle in his eye, but he’s also nursing a private grief and pain that motivates his defection. He can be demanding of his men, but also inspires loyalty – that “We Shail into Hishtory!” pep-talk speech is delivered perfectly (and McTiernan makes Soviet sailors singing the Soviet anthem a punch-the-air moment even though (a) we know they are technically the bad guys and (b) we know Ramius is lying through his teeth in his speech). But he is always a commander, Connery investing him with every inch of his movie star cool.

Ramius is also an interesting reflection, in a way, of Ryan. Played with a great deal of young-boy charm by Baldwin (and also wit, Baldwin dropping impersonations of other cast members into the film – including a stand-out Connery), Ryan is brave, determined but also slightly naïve and out-of-his-depth. But like Ramius he respects his “enemy”, is open to negotiation, thinks before he acts and wants to save lives. The two even share similar upbringings. The film triumphantly shows a desk man, spreading his wings and doing stuff he couldn’t imagine: the guy who tells an air hostess in an early scene he can’t sleep on flights due to fear of turbulence, will later have himself dropped into the sea from a perilous helicopter flight, steer a Russian sub and duke it out with the last Soviet hard-liner standing in The Red October’s missile room.

McTiernan shoots Ryan’s conversations like combat scenes: quick reversals and cross shots and even whip pans and zooms. It ratchets up the tension and drama in these sequences – and allows him to play it cooler in the sub shots which (with its more constrained set) where patient studies of tense faces follow sonar reports of the approach of torpedoes or enemy subs. Sound is a triumph in Red October – every ping or sonar shadow is sound edited to perfection, with much of its tension coming from their perfect rising intensity.

It builds towards a superb resolution as several plot threads come together in a dramatic face-off that gives us everything from sub v sub to gunfights, with tragedy and triumph all mixed in. It’s a perfect ending to a film that is a masterpiece of plotting and construction, acted to perfection by the whole cast (Connery and Baldwin, but also Jones, Neill, Glenn – perfect casting as a no-nonsense naval captain – and several reliable players in smaller roles). McTiernan directs with exceptional pace and excitement, it’s sharply scripted and technically without a fault – from its gleaming Soviet sub (with church like missile room) to brilliantly edited sound-design. It’s a joy every time I watch it.

Jurassic World: Dominion (2022)

Jurassic World: Dominion (2022)

It squeezes so many characters in, it totally forgets to make room for plot, invention or anything new at all

Director: Colin Trevorrow

Cast: Chris Pratt (Owen Grady), Bryce Dallas Howard (Claire Dearing), Laura Dern (Dr Ellie Sattler), Jeff Goldblum (Dr Ian Malcolm), Sam Neill (Dr Alan Grant), Isabella Sermon (Maisie Lockwood), DeWanda Wise (Kayla Watts), Mamoudou Athie (Ramsay Cole), Campbell Scott (Dr Lewis Dodgson), BD Wong (Dr Henry Wu), Omar Sy (Barry Sembène), Justice Smith (Franklin Webb), Daniella Pineda (Dr Zia Rodriguez)

As I was leaving the cinema, I heard a twelve-year old talking about which of the dinosaurs in the movie was their favourite. Then they said: “it was a bit samey though wasn’t it?”. I’m not sure I can beat that precocious nail-on-the-head judgement. Nothing happens in Jurassic World: Dominion you’ve not seen many times before in the franchise. Underneath the flash, Jurassic World: Dominion is a tired retread, crowbarring in references from better films left, right and centre, all to hide that there are no new ideas here.

Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) have dedicated their lives to protecting human clone Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon) from the grasp of corporations. When she’s kidnapped by foot-soldiers of clearly-evil-corp BioSyn (they even have “Sin” in their name), they pull out all the stops to get her back from BioSyn’sNorthern Italy research compound. Meanwhile, Drs Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and Alan Grant (Sam Neill) are investigating genetically modified locusts which are destroying every crop in the Southern USA – except those using BioSyn seed. All roads lead to that Italian compound – where Dr Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) is employed as a contrarian philosopher – to try and stop BioSyn’s nefarious schemes.

You know what struck me when I wrote that summary? I didn’t use the word dinosaurs. The prehistoric beasties are pretty superfluous. Sure, they down a plane and our heroes dodge them in various places (BioSyn’s compound doubles as a dinosaur refuge). But, seeing as the last film ended with dinosaurs escaping into the wild and becoming part of our everyday lives… this sequel takes the concept nowhere. Bar an opening news report montage (showing, among other things, pterodactyls – yes, I know they’re not dinosaurs – stealing a bride’s bouquet) and a Star Wars style under-ground market where dino-pets and fighting-pit beasties are traded on the black market, Dominion finds almost nothing to do with this.

In fact, Dominion struggles to find anything to do at all. It’s an extremely loosely plotted mess of a film that feels like two vaguely (very, very vaguely) connected plotlines rammed together in a way designed to shoe-horn in as many legacy characters and call-backs as possible. Laura Dern gets the bulkiest (and only plot essential) role among the returning trio. Sam Neill feels dragged along for the ride (Grant serves literally no narrative purpose) and, while Goldblum gets most of the best lines (delivered in his trademark, improvisational oddness), Malcolm merely splits the role of “inside man” with another character so cursorily introduced and vaguely motivated he feels like he was only there because covid made some of the other actors unavailable for parts of the filming.

The legacy framing is so lazy that all three of these characters essentially wear the same costumes as they did in Jurassic Park. Everyone in universe seems to know who they are (Which I find highly unlikely) and the film bends over backwards to introduce clumsy links between them and the characters from the first two Jurassic World films in ways that feel forced.

The film slowly consumes itself with references back to previous films, linked by sequences that feel ripped out from other hits. Owen and Claire’s opening plotline plays out like an odd Mission: Impossible spy thriller, including a Bourne-ish roof top chase (with Owen haring away on his trademark motorbike from killer velociraptors – the film’s only exciting set-piece, and even that is ripped from other films) with Claire transformed into a semi-adept free-runner. The dino-market is essentially Mos Eisley, by way of that Kamono Dragon fighting pit from Skyfall. By the end a host of famous set-pieces from Jurassic Park and Jurassic World are effectively re-staged or openly referenced and props (such as Nedry’s shaving foam can) are reverentially pulled out.

Any interesting ideas raised are swiftly crushed. Maisie’s concern that, as a clone, she isn’t a real person is fascinating, but the film forgets it in seconds. The villain (a neat Steve Jobs parody from Campbell Scott) spends a fortune capturing Maisie – but when she escapes (thanks to a key to her cage being helpfully left on a table in front of her) he makes literally no attempt at all to recapture her. It’s stressed to us that the whole world is looking for Maisie and that if she is found it will be dangerous for her – by the end of the film she’s doing a press conference and no one gives a damn. The moral implications of a ‘mother’ cloning herself and curing her clone child of a life-ending disease in the womb, is thrown on the table and then ignored.

The whole film revolves around ridiculous coincidences. Villains run away and then helpfully return to ludicrously unsafe places, purely because the plot requires it. Stupid decisions are made right, left and centre. Plot armour ruthlessly protects the expected. The dinosaurs are just irrelevant set dressing: we are told no less than three times the Gigantasaurus is “the biggest hunter there’s ever been”: solely to build up an inevitable face-off with the T-Rex. The deadly locust plot is such a naked attempt to motivate shoe-horning in legacy characters, the film doesn’t even bother to explain what it’s about or what the baddies plan was.

At one point Laura Dern says something to the effect of “we shouldn’t live in the past, we should aim for the future”. Imagine if this slightly lumpen rehash of its better predecessors had done the same.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park header
Dinosaurs walk the Earth once more in Spielberg’s classic blockbuster Jurassic Park

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Sam Neill (Dr Alan Grant), Laura Dern (Dr Ellie Satler), Jeff Goldblum (Dr Ian Malcolm), Richard Attenborough (John Hammond), Bob Peck (Robert Muldoon), Joseph Mazzello (Tim Murphy), Ariana Richards (Lex Murphy), Samuel L. Jackson (Ray Arnold), Wayne Knight (Dennis Nedry), Martin Ferrero (Donald Gernaro), BD Wong (Dr Henry Wu)

Can you imagine a more exciting film for a 12-year-old boy, than one with dinosaurs walking the Earth once more? And not the sort of rubbery dinosaurs, that we always knew were really models, in classic films. I was 12 when I first saw this film, and these animals really did look 65 million years in the making: they felt real, with roars that deafened the ears and footfalls that made the cinema shake. Dinosaurs are hugely exciting, awe-inspiring beasts. So much so you can forget many of them were also ruthless killers, with really sharp pointy teeth. It’s that mixture of awe and terror that Steven Spielberg understands so well in this exceptional blockbuster, like he mixed Close Encounters and Jaws together in a lab and then let it run loose.

Boffins have worked out a way to clone dinosaurs from frozen DNA, stuck inside prehistoric mosquitoes. Naturally, what else would you do with this discovery but use it to create the most exciting theme park ever seen. What could possibly go wrong? Avuncular billionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has built the park – and he wants scientists and archaeologists Alan Grant (Sam Neill), Ellie Satler (Laura Dern) and Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) to give it the thumbs up. Sadly however things are set for disaster during a long, low-staffed weekend when an act of industrial espionage by disgruntled employee Nedry (Wayne Knight) leads to all control over the par being lost and the dinosaurs turning on the guests.

The rights to Chrichton’s novel were sold before the book was published, and it’s classic Chrichton set-up of science trying to play God, and landing us all in a moral quagmire and massacre. But first though, let’s not forget how awe-inspiring dinosaurs actually. It’s a long wait until we see any more detail of one than a fearsome eye. But when we do, Jurassic Park knows that for that brief moment we are all children again. As John Williams’ triumphant theme thunders out, and the characters stagger with breathless, tearful excitement in its wake, a Brachiosaurus towers over the screen. Spielberg’s camera perfectly hammers home the sense of wonder at the size and beauty of this gentle giant. Sure science is arrogant, but then if it wasn’t we’d never reach the stars, right?

Spielberg’s film though isn’t just an awe-inspiring modern-day Planet Earth. Because the makers of this park also created plenty of fierce monsters, from the mighty T-Rex to the scarily smart and vicious velociraptors. And if the first half of the film is about the magic – that imperious brachiosaurus, a sleeping triceratops, a baby velociraptor emerging from its egg – the second half is about the horror of finding out what happens when man’s hubris comes back and (literally) bites him in the ass (and plenty of other places). Because when the Raptors get lose, suddenly this park isn’t magic, but a terrifying death-trap where the guests are the prey to out-of-control exhibits.

The second half of the film – from the moment the T-Rex bursts through its non-functioning electric fence to rip apart two jeeps (and of course eat a lawyer cringing on the toilet) – is a terrifying, giddy, exciting monster-chase, with a director who hasn’t delighted this much in the relentless horror of nature since Jaws. And Spielberg gets to play every game here. Huge dinosaurs stomping on cars. Velociraptors playing ruthless hide-and-seek in isolated power houses. Open spaces becoming terrifying hunting grounds and everyday ones like kitchens become terrible traps. What chance do human beings have when there are “clever girls” like the raptors running around?

Jurassic Park is singularly responsible for elevating the raptor, a previously largely unknown dinosaur, to the front rank of dinosaur fame. There is always a romantic appeal to the T-Rex. It’s the king after all, the biggest and the most famous – and its status in the public perhaps reflects the fact that the film sort of asks us to root for it. After all, it only eats the lawyer. And when the final act comes, it’s the T-Rex’s intervention that saves our heroes bacon. The real monsters are the raptors: supremely clever (they can open doors!), totally ruthless, they hunt in packs, they move super-fast and they look like a disturbing mix between bird, human and lizard. Spielberg makes them one of the most terrifying monsters in film, that more than live up to their extended build-up.

Spielberg directs the entire film with his usual devilish wit and fiendish mastery of the set-piece. The film draws some neat, if simple, story-lines for its human characters. Will Dr Grant overcome his aversion to children? Each of them gets a snippet like this. The actors are often (literally) in the shadow of the dinosaurs, but they are big part of communicating the sense of awe. Neill and Dern go through the motions with a certain charm. Goldblum steals most of his scenes as a rock ‘n’ roll physicist, riffing in the way only he can. Richard Attenborough reinvented himself from a career of creeps to cuddly grandad as a Hammond who shares nothing but his name with the book’s ruthless capitalist.

But the real stars are the dinosaurs. And even almost thirty years on, the special effects are really breath-taking here. These feel like real, living, breathing creatures, and Spielberg knows how to shoot them. Even today it still casts quite a spell. It’s telling that none of the sequels, except Jurassic World (which was made by the people who grew up on this film) gets near to matching the mix of magic and horror that this one hits. Sure, it’s a film so confident of success that it fills one scene with shots of the park merchandise (available in a shop near you now!), but then that’s because it’s got a master at the helm and the greatest attractions in 65 million years.

With its underlying plot of the dangers of mankind’s hubris – plus some rather witty criticism of how a park reliant on wild animals might have struggled to work anyway if the dinosaurs refused to emerge from the shadows of their huge paddocks for the tourists – Jurassic Park gives you something to think about, while still terrifying you with ruthless monsters. It’s a classic.]

Plenty (1985)

Charles Dance and Meryl Streep endure marital misery in the bleak, oblique and uninvolving David Hare drama Plenty

Director: Fred Schepisi

Cast: Meryl Streep (Susan Traherne), Charles Dance (Raymond Brock), Tracey Ullman (Alice Park), John Gielgud (Sir Leonard Darwin), Sting (Mick), Ian McKellen (Sir Andrew Charleson), Sam Neill (Lazar)

David Hare’s 1970s play Plenty looked at the impact of peace on the war generation. A “state of the nation” story on the growth of prosperity in the post-war era, and the return of many to the humdrum reality of life with Britain’s importance as a world power in rapid decline, led to isolation, anger and depression. It’s a shame that much of that really doesn’t come across in this buttoned-up, murky and unclear social drama, with a hard-to-follow plot and a hard-to-like central character.

Susan Traherne (Meryl Streep) is an SOE courier in France during the Second World War, who has a one-night stand with fellow SOE operative Lazar (Sam Neill) which has a profound effect on her. After the war, she marries Foreign Office civil servant Raymond Brock (Charles Dance), but is unable to find a purpose and contentment in regular civilian life. As the years tick by, and their surroundings grow ever more plentiful, Susan becomes more and more unhappy, difficult and demanding.

The central issue with Plenty (I can’t comment on the play, having never seen it) is that Meryl Streep creates possibly one of the least likeable leading performance you are going to see. Perhaps mistaking Britishness for cut-glass chill – or perhaps it’s the character – Streep’s Susan is brittle, bitter, angry, annoying and infuriating. She complains about everything around her, she lashes out at people, she sulks and whines with no self-insight, she constantly makes life difficult for those around her (most of whom are unbelievably patient) and she is almost impossible to work out. 

While the film perhaps intends her to be as sort-of PTSD sufferer, with undiagnosed personality disorders, who cannot reconcile the shallowness of her life with the excitement of war service, I’m not sure this comes across. All we really see is her deeply irritating self. We don’t get a sense of her war service – we see her breakdown early in the film in France – and her relationship with Lazar remains so ill-defined we are unclear what impact it had on her, other than part of a halcyon memory. The film’s final scene is a flashback to the end of the war: Susan watching a sunrise on a French hill dreaming of her life being full of days like this. That scene would have been helpful earlier – it’s the only time we see her optimistic or likeable in the film, and it gets lost by placing it at the end. With it in order we could have warmed to her more.

Instead she remains a shrill presence, in a hard to relate to film that never really makes clear whether we are meant to empathise with Susan, or find her as frustrating as some of the characters do. The film also fails to make this enigma part of its viewing design – I don’t feel like having the lines blurred made the film a richer experience, just one it was harder to engage in. Schepisi’s directing style is very cold and distant – from the slow camera moves, to the tight close ups on Susan at key moments, to the deliberate lack of clear time line (each scene moves on weeks, months or years from the previous one with only a few design and dialogue hints to suggest the change).

Combined with Hare’s indefinable script – crammed with elliptical conversations, unclear emotional and dramatic points, and political points delivered with a querying shrug – it makes for a film that is very hard work to engage with – and doesn’t offer much to reward the viewer if they do. 

What pleasures there are come from the performers. Charles Dance is good as Susan’s long-suffering husband – far from a domineering patriarch, his only real crime seems to be that he is a bit boring. Ian McKellen makes a great cameo as a senior civil servant, coolly and calmly telling Susan the errors of her thinking. Sting is an odd choice (I suspect his presence helped the film get backing) and Tracey Ullman does tend to go too far as Susan’s bohemian but more emotionally restrained friend.

John Gielgud steals the show. He is simply superb as Brock’s boss, an old-school diplomat who is, at first, a figure of fun with his Edwardian values but whom events (in particular Suez) reveal to have firm principles. Gielgud also gets most of the film’s best lines, while his quiet air of polite dignity is both endearing and admirable. His delivery of the following line to a tedious bore of a party guest basically is the high point of the movie: “But perhaps before I go, I may nevertheless set you right on a point of fact. Ingmar Bergman is not a bloody Norwegian, he is a bloody Swede.”

But there aren’t enough pleasures like this in this overbearing, rather trying film that never really decides what point it’s trying to make. I think it’s something about wealth and discontent and the more selfish and scrambling build of the post-war generation towards Thatcherism. But I’m really not sure. And to be honest I’m not sure I care.