Tag: Simon McBurney

The Theory of Everything (2014)

Felicity Jones and  Eddie Redmayne bring to the screen the life of Stephen Hawking

Director: James Marsh

Cast: Eddie Redmayne (Stephen Hawking), Felicity Jones (Jane Hawking), Charlie Cox (Jonathan Jones), David Thewlis (Dennis Sciama), Simon McBurney (Frank Hawking), Emily Watson (Beryl Wilde), Maxine Peake (Elaine Mason), Harry Lloyd (Brian), Guy Oliver-Watts (George Wilde), Abigail Cruttenden (Isobel Hawking), Christian McKay (Roger Penrose), Enzo Cilenti (Kip Thorne)

If you want a story of a triumph over adversity, there are few where adversity was faced off so successfully and publicly than the life of Stephen Hawking. Diagnosed with motor-neurone disease while still a postgraduate, Hawing defied the diagnosis that gave him little more than a few years to live, to shape a life and career that would have a profound impact on the world and make him probably the most famous scientist alive. Not bad for a man who spent a large part of his life confined to a wheelchair, only able to communicate through a synthesised computer voice.

But his life was not just a story where he was the only character. Many of his accomplishments came about because of the unflagging support of his wife Jane. This film takes as its source the book Jane wrote about their life together. And while it arguably sugar-coats or plays down some of the more uncomfortable or divisive elements of their marriage (a marriage that was eventually to end in divorce and several years where they did not speak), it also serves as a warm tribute to the many years they spent together where their support for each other was total and offered with no agenda or demands.

Here in James Marsh’s inventive and well-made film, which manages to more-or-less transcend its “movie of the week” roots, Hawking and Jane are played by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in performances that scooped an Oscar and a nomination respectively. Both are deserved, as these are rich, dedicated and empathetic performances, crammed with admiration for their subjects. It all fits perfectly well in Marsh’s moving if (at times) rather conventional film, which he directs with a lack of flash and plenty of heart. 

It’s a film that sometimes avoids delving too deeply into the emotional heartlands of its lead characters, and the frequently messy situations that life throws you into (the end of this relationship comes with a remarkably calm sadness, which contrasts heavily with the furious argument Jane describes in her book). It’s also a film that has a very clear agenda of framing Jane as a near saint in her devotion and patience, and Stephen as a brave soul with a superhuman perseverance and regard for his wife. So the introduction of choir leader Jonathan Jones (played with a sweet charm by Charlie Cox) into their domestic life as a surrogate father to the Hawking children and friend to Jane (very definitely not a lover, the film is eager to make clear) is very much something accepted by both without a hint of doubt or recrimination. Similarly, Hawking’s later divorce of Jane is set in a context of “setting her free” rather than the more (allegedly) definitive break it was in real life.

Real life, you suspect, was messier than this. The film does mine some excellent emotional honesty from Jane’s decision to marry Stephen being, at least partly, based on her belief that this man she loves only has a few years to live. From the start she doesn’t anticipate signing up for a lifetime of providing care and abandoning her own aspirations to support Stephen’s (the film makes no real mention of her own dreams of becoming a translator) – but Jane does so with a decided willingness and sense of duty. Similarly, Stephen does not anticipate a life essentially trapped in a wheelchair – finally speechless – and the film allows beats of frustration from him, alongside the determination to not let these problems prevent him from achieving his potential.

The film revolves around Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Hawking. Needless to say it’s a technical marvel, a stunning accomplishment not only in its physical mastery (especially as it was all shot out of sequence, so in each scene Redmayne needed to carefully map how far the symptoms had progressed) and commitment, but also in its searing emotionality. Hawking’s brightness, his bashful playfulness, his intelligence and sense of cheeky charm are all there – and they’re later married with a pained, just-controlled bitterness mixed with stern mouthed resentment and gutsy determination to deal with the hand he has been given. Redmayne’s performance is a superb capturing of the all-consuming feelings of being betrayed by your own body, of no longer being the master of your own frame and being forced to adjust your plans and expectations to meet the limits nature has put on you.

Felicity Jones is equally good in a superbly heartfelt performance as Jane, a woman who gifts Stephen the determination and will to see past the limits the disease places on him. But it’s also a performance that acknowledges the draining burden of having to support someone this ill, of having to constantly be the strong member of the marriage, the one who must always be as ready to save her husband from choking at dinner as she must be to drop everything and fly across Europe to take life-saving medical decisions about him. Jones’ performance never slips into self-pity, but mines a rich vein of willing sacrifice powered by love.

Marsh’s film is largely unflinching around the everyday miseries and sorrow of the terminally ill and restrictingly disabled. We are confronted in every scene with the limits that Hawking’s body places upon him, from deteriorating handwriting and clumsiness to the loss of all speech and movement. This progression is presented with a detail uncoloured by maudlin sentimentality. Doctors are sympathetic but bluntly clear about the dangers and risks of treatment, each adversity is met with a quiet determination to carry on.

The Theory of Everything is a heart-warming watch – and features two superb performances. The portrait of a marriage that works, for the most part of their lives together, despite all obstacles is inspiring. While the film glosses over well-publicised issues over the end of the relationship – and perhaps downplays the emotional strains on both towards its end – it still succeeds in making a largely unsentimental picture of a genius who overcame all, and the brave woman who gave him the dedication he needed to do it.

The Last King of Scotland (2006)

Forest Whitaker dominates as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Cast: Forest Whitaker (Idi Amin), James McAvoy (Nicholas Garrigan), Kerry Washington (Kay Amin), Gillian Anderson (Sarah Merrit), Simon McBurney (Stone), David Oyelowo (Dr Junju)

Forest Whitaker won every award going for his performance as Idi Amin. A film can perhaps only begin to scratch the surface of what a megalomaniac nutjob Amin was, and the depths of his depravity and corruption. But The Last King of Scotland is perhaps less focused on that, and more on the pull that people as charismatically self-absorbed and larger-than-life like Amin can have on the weak-minded and, on a wider basis, how this can end up with him leading an entire country on a not-so-merry dance, everyone desperate to gain the love and approval of a single dominant personality.

That weakling is Dr Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) a young medical graduate from Edinburgh, who is arrogant, cocksure over-sexed and over-here in Uganda, keen for adventure and to get as much sex and experiences in as he can while he’s over here. A gap-year student with a desire for the easy life, after a chance meeting Garrigan becomes chief-physician and confidant to Amin, a man with a deep love for Scotland and who likes to think of himself as a father to those around him. It takes Garrigan a long time to realise that this indulgent, if bad-tempered, charismatic father-figure  is in fact a brutal dictator, his eyes eventually opened by the experiences of one of Amin’s wives Kay (Kerry Washington) who pays a heavy price for mothering an epileptic and adultery. Will Garrigan escape from Uganda?

Macdonald’s film gets a brilliant sense of both the exotic appeal of Uganda at the time (and or Amin) and it’s heat-embroiled danger. The camera work is flooded with yellows and grimy details, that makes every scene feel like its bathed in heat (and later danger) as well as giving it a documentary realism (helped by its use of handheld and immediate footage). The story of the film itself is a fairly basic morality tale, but these stories work because of their universality and it’s clear that Garrigan’s selfishness, shallowness and self-interest is going to lead to a terrible awakening.

The film’s real strength is Whitaker’s tour-de-force as Idi Amin. Whitaker is an actor who has been straining at the leash for an explosive roll, and he gets one here. If ever there was a part that would allow an actor to let rip it’s the one, with Amin part Hannibal Lector, part decadent Roman emperor, a low-rent Hitler with an ego larger than his country. But the bombast and childish fury work because it is built within the framework of a sort of puffed-up magnetism, a charismatic “hail-fellow-well-met” bonhomie that suggests this guy could be the best fun in the room. So dripping in assurance and confidence is Amin that he becomes strangely attractive – and the sort of all-powerful force of nature that would have most of us smiling if we caught a word of approval from him.

The trick of the film is to front-and-centre this lighter, fun-loving aspect. It’s easy to enjoy it like Garrigan as Amin charms the audience as much as he does its lead character. Sure there may be violence at the margins, but good-old-Amin is just doing what needs to be done. He’s brilliant with the people. It’s funny when he on-a-whim appoints Garrigan to decide a major architectural pitch from several countries. He’s playful and enthusiastic. When he’s cross with people he seems at first more disappointed than angry. It’s only as the film goes on that we realise we have been gaslit as much as Garrigan, that Amin may be a fun guy but he also cares nothing for anyone and that the more his focus shifts away, the more we see his callous paranoia and lack of any moral scruples.

Certainly we start getting a sense of the ruthlessness he is prepared to exhibit to enforce his rule in Uganda and the brutality with which he will suppress any resistance. Aides killed in a failed assassination attempt illicit no sympathy. He feels no guilt or responsibility for anything he does. In one brutal moment he berates Garrigan for failing to counsel him against expelling all Asians from Uganda. When Garrigan protests he did, Amin only responds with “Yes, but you did not persuade me Nicholas!” the sort of inverted logic practised only by the insanely self-obsessed.

Whitaker’s performance powers all this, a magnetic masterclass in insanity, charisma and paranoia. He’s well matched by James McAvoy (the film’s real lead) whose performance is similarly a masterclass is shallowness and petty triteness. If anything the film is almost too successful in this. A Garrigan is such a little arsehole it takes quite a force of will to build up any sympathy for this serial shagger playboy. It’s capable to think as the fire turns on him that perhaps he deserves this – and the number of (mostly black) characters who lay down their lives to protect him starts to get a bit wearing after a while.

Because this in part is a film where actual Ugandans are not heard that much. The two principle characters we see are both victims: Kerry Washington in a thankless part as the attractive young wife you just know from day one Garrigan will climb into bed with and David Oyelowo as the sort of noble doctor you only seem to find in movies. For all its horror at Amin’s crimes, it’s still largely filtered through the eyes of a young, white, innocent abroad who sees up-front the dangers but the real victims of Amin, the Ugandans themselves, are clichés or elevated clichés.

While you could say that was not the point of the film, it still means we miss some of the real danger and psychopathy of the leading character, so absorbed are we in seeing the increasing peril of the white man caught up in it all. It’s why The Last King of Scotland doesn’t quite work as well as it should, any why it settles in the end for a being a morality tale plot-boiler about a monster at the heart of the forest, rather than a deeper and more intelligent film about the tragedy of an African state. It’s still enjoyable for all that, but it could have been more.

Body of Lies (2008)

Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio fail to master the Middle East in Ridley Scott’s spy thriller Body of Lies

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Roger Ferris), Russell Crowe (Ed Hoffman), Mark Strong (Hani Salaam), Golshifteh Farahani (Aisha), Oscar Isaac (Bassam), Ali Suliman (Omar Sadiki), Alon Abutbul (Al-Saleem), Vince Colosimo (Skip), Simon McBurney (Garland), Lubna Azabal (Cala)

Ridley Scott is a bit of a curate’s egg as a director. You can always expect a film with a certain visual flair, as well as a story that attempts to tackle big themes and engaging topics. However, it doesn’t always produce an end result that really grips or feels like something that particularly stands out from the crowd. That’s what you end up with Body of Lies, a film that constantly feels like it is on the cusp of saying something important or interesting about the relationship between East and West, but constantly falls back on the sort of spy movie tropes it initially feels like it wants to debunk.

In the Middle East, Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a dedicated CIA operative, with an intricate knowledge of the cultures and issues of the region. He constantly finds himself frustrated and undermined by his boss Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), based in Langley, who is constantly willing to sacrifice long-term gains for short-term political pay-offs. Assigned to Jordan, Ferris begins an investigation into a terrorist cell, working closely with head of Jordanian security Hani Salaam (Mark Strong) – but Hoffman’s intercessions increasingly cause tension.

Scott’s film is stylish and well assembled, with a great sense of pace and place. The contrasts between DiCaprio on the ground (in the dirt, facing dangers and tackling everything from terrorists to rabid dogs) and Crowe back in the States (rarely if ever seen without a hands-free phone set dangling from his ear, viewing everything at a distance with no understanding of the intricacies) is well drawn. The sense of complete cultural misunderstanding and lack of connection between East and West is established early, and attempts to cross it generally lead to disaster. The patience and expertise of the Jordanian security forces is contrasted constantly with the more slap-dash, hasty efforts of the CIA to meet the same goals. It’s all set for something quite interesting.

But then the film somehow doesn’t quite come together. Its episodic structure increasingly stretches out as action moves back and forth from Jordan to Langley and back again. A particularly wild scheme by Ferris (which, to the viewer not the film, suggests he is as incompetent and reckless as Hoffman) turns the film towards the sort of kidnap/torture/nick-of-time-rescue plotline that wouldn’t look out of place in 24 or James Bond. Basically, the plot turns on the film transitioning from something with a genuine political statement to make into the sort of disposal rent-a-spy-thriller that you forget pretty quickly. 

DiCaprio gets a lot of “big” moments to juggle with, as well as a rather forced romance with a Jordanian nurse (something that he and Golshifteh Farahani play very well, but seems to have wandered in from an even more conventional film) but the film works hard to paint him as the “hero” who knows better than his superiors, despite the film chronicling a string of mistakes. Crowe enjoys himself as self-important windbag behind a computer, as uncaring as the institutions he represents.

The real star of the show however is Mark Strong, excellent as the suave head of Jordanian intelligence, seemingly the only character who has any understanding about what is going on. With a cool sharpness, slightly playful politeness and a slight chill of threat, Strong is the film’s most interesting character. There is a striking point made here that the most effective person in the film is a Jordanian spy chief with a mixed reputation – but the film largely shirks the possibility of really using this to demonstrate how out-of-their-depth the CIA agents are, as if worried that flagging up their manifest incompetence at every turn would sell badly Stateside.

It’s part of the film’s general lack of soul behind the skill of its construction. I know Scott is deeply interested in these themes of East vs West and the culture clashes that develop from it, but it just doesn’t come out here at all. There was a film to be made here about how the war on terror has thrown the CIA and the West into a setting they don’t understand, playing by rules they haven’t been briefed on. But all too often the film instead settles for telling us the same-old-same-old, padding out its runtime with spy story clichés and thriller plotting. Scott himself even uses visual tricks – surveillance drone shots and 24 style action – which suggest that somewhere along the line his heart wasn’t really in it. Body of Lies could have been a really interesting thriller about the world today. Instead it’s just another spy thriller about the war on terror.

The Golden Compass (2007)

How did it all go wrong? The disastrous production of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass

Director: Chris Weitz

Cast: Dakota Blue Richards (Lyra Belacqua), Nicole Kidman (Mrs Coulter), Daniel Craig (Lord Asriel), Sam Elliott (Lee Scoresby), Eva Green (Serafina Pekkala), Jim Carter (John Faa), Clare Higgins (Ma Costa), Tom Courtenay (Farder Coram), Derek Jacobi (Magisterial Emissary), Simon McBurney (Fra Pavel), Jack Shepherd (Master of Jordan College), Ian McKellen (Iorek Byrnison), Freddie Highmore (Pantalaimon), Ian McShane (Ragnar Sturlusson), Kathy Bates (Hester), Kristin Scott Thomas (Stelmaria)

After the success of The Lord of the Rings, bookshops were stripped of all epic fantasy novels with a cross-generational appeal by film producers, their mouths watering at the prospect of having another billion-dollar licence to print money. Nearly all of these projects bombed, but I’m not sure any of them bombed harder than this, an attempt to kick-start a trilogy of films based on Philip Pullman’s both loved and controversial His Dark Materials books. What went so completely wrong?

Pullman’s trilogy is set in an alternative-Oxford, where people all have Dæmons, part of their soul that lives outside their body in animal form. It’s a world where the Magisterium, a powerful organisation, suppresses all free thought, in particular all investigation into the mysterious particle dust. Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is an orphan raised in Jordan College, who saves the life of Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who is investigating Dust in the North. Leaving the college with the mysterious Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who may or may not be involved in a series of child kidnappings, she eventually finds herself drawn more and more into setting right the problems of her world.

The Golden Compass is a film that pleased no-one. Fans of the book generally hated it. The people who hated the books hated it. The people who hated what they had been told the book was about hated it. Why did the studio decide to make a film in the first place about a book series they seemed to know was controversial from the start? If they didn’t really want to embrace the themes of the books, why bother? Pullman’s books are partly adventure stories, partly intricate world building, partly spiritual discussions – and yes partly atheist tracts with a strong anti-Establishment-church bent (with a more general regard for genuine faith). To put it bluntly, that’s a lot of ideas to try and squeeze into a film – particularly a film well under two hours.

So The Golden Compass is a mess that feels like it’s been put together by committee. It’s been cut to within an inch of its life – scenes jump incredibly swiftly from event to event, often with the barest of clunky explanation voiceover (“We’re going to see Lord Faa, King of the Gyptians”) to tell you what’s going on. Pages and pages of dialogue and character seem to be lost. We are constantly told Lyra is “special” but never shown anything that supports or explains this. An Eva Green-voiced infodump opens the film: clearly the producers were thinking about Peter Jackson’s masterful opening to The Fellowship of the Ring, which skilfully introduces everything. This introduction though is about removing all the mystery and magic of the story as soon as possible by stating it bluntly up-front.

The biggest mess is of course the way the film avoids all reference to Pullman’s religious themes. No reference is made at all to the Magisterium being a church. No reference is made at all to religion or faith. Iorek is clearly being held in a Russian Orthodox painted church – but the building is referred to throughout as an “office”. Derek Jacobi plays one of the principal Cardinal antagonists of the third book – no reference is made to his office. The Magisterium is instead just a “shady organisation” – a controlling gestapo-type organisation, with black uniforms and creepy Albert Speer style buildings. The questions of Dust and original sin – so central to the motivations of the story – are completely unexplained, meaning the child kidnapping and sinister intercission the villains are carrying out makes no sense at all. How on earth they planned to continue not talking about religion in their planned third film is a complete mystery.

This rushing is the problem throughout the film. Stuff just happens really, really quickly for no real reason. Characters pop up to introduce themselves for later films, or to drop clunky exposition. Tom Courtenay explains what an aleitheometer is for us (the film constantly brings up this “Golden Compass” and its future-telling properties, without ever really making them feel important for anything that happens in the film). Eva Green flies in to say she’s a witch and how pleased she is to meet Lyra and promptly flies off. Daniel Craig name checks Dust, gets captured then disappears. Sam Elliott introduces his rabbit Dæmon and shoots a couple of things. None of this gets any chance to grow and develop – and you end up not caring about any of these characters. Nearly every plot event from the first book is kept in – but so rushed you don’t give a toss.

The structure of the film has also been changed from the book, and not for the better. The film (probably thinking about later films) increases the presence of the Magisterium throughout – but without really making their antagonist role clear. Lyra and Iorek’s defeat of Iorek’s usurper Ragnar is moved to before the final defeat of the Gobbler’s ice base – this doesn’t make a lot of sense. If Iorek now commands an army of bears, why doesn’t he bring them along for the final battle? Lyra instead wanders up to the base like an idiot, and the film extends the release of the children from the ice base into a big battle in order to give us a Lord of the Rings style finish. It doesn’t matter that nothing in the film feels like it’s building plotwise or dramatically towards this battle – it’s there you feel, because Lord of the Rings had battles and people loved that, so let’s get one in here. 

In fact the film builds towards nothing, because it has been cut so poorly, and is such a terrible compromised product, that everything the books are building towards has been removed from it. So the entire thing makes no bloody sense. The clash with the church and organised religion doesn’t work because all reference to faith has been cut. There are mutterings about a “war” coming, but no one says what it might be about. There is a loose crusade to save the kidnapped children – but we don’t understand either side of this. The cruelly ironic ending of the book, with Lord Asriel’s real plan revealed, is deleted altogether from the film – because the studio didn’t want a “downer” ending. As a result the film just suddenly ends (after a clunky “We’ll go home one day after this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and after we’ve solved all the problems of the world” speech).

Studio interference reeks off this whole film. It’s been cut to ribbons. Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee were parachuted into the cast in order to make the film feel more like Lord of the Rings. McKellen sounds completely wrong as a mighty armoured bear (original casting Nonso Anozie would have been perfect). Lee chips in a single line in what is painfully obviously an addition from re-shoots. Anything potentially different or interesting is cut out. In fact anything that was unique about Pullman’s original books is cut out: as much is done as possible to make Pullman’s story as identikit and standard as hundreds of other bland fantasy dramas. As if they hadn’t realised the book was potentially really controversial in the more traditional parts of the US market, it seems like the studio only really read the books once the film was shot, suddenly realised they had made a massive mistake, and tried to reduce the danger as much as possible by making the film as bland as they possible could.

Chris Weitz is completely unsuited for directing it – and he actually feels like a hostage the more you read about the film’s turbulent production – but it’s not all bad. Dakota Blue Richards is actually pretty good as Lyra – she’s got a certain magic charisma. The set design is pretty terrific – even if it is a lot more steampunk than I pictured the novel as being. The special effects are pretty goods – the Dæmons are well done, and the puff of gold Dust they turn into when someone dies is striking. Some of the adult casting is pretty good – Kidman is just about perfect, Craig is pretty good, Sam Elliott stands out as Lee Scoresby. There are some neat cameos as well – I would have liked to see Jacobi get to tackle the third book, Eva Green is wasted, Tom Courtenay is pretty good. It just all rushes by so quickly. You don’t get the chance to get to know anyone fully. If the book was a bit episodic, this takes that worst element of it and ramps it up to eleven.

The Golden Compass tanked. It tanked so hard, New Line Cinema didn’t really recover. All plans for future films were scrapped. However, it is important in another way. In presenting such a horrifically neutered, stripped-down version of the story, it persuaded a lot of people that books rich in world building and content like this needed much longer than a traditional film to be brought to life. It helped persuade George RR Martin that TV was the way to go when selling the rights for Game of Thrones. And His Dark Materials will now live again as a 10 part TV series in the near future. For all its many, many failures – we owe it something.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

Tom Cruise is the Living Manifestation of Destiny in Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Cast: Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Jeremy Renner (William Brandt), Simon Pegg (Benji Dunn), Rebecca Ferguson (Ilsa Faust), Ving Rhames (Luther Stickell), Sean Harris (Solomon Lane), Alec Baldwin (Alan Hunley), Simon McBurney (Atlee), Tom Hollander (Prime Minister)

Tom Cruise may be getting on a bit now, but he still does his own stunts with reckless disregard for his own safety: part of the franchise’s appeal is seeing the latest insane thing the Crusier will do. In M:I RN he gets this out of the way early (pre-credits) with a madcap stunt involving holding onto a plane while it takes off. A clever little tease, if for no other reason that no-one can complain about it being a spoiler when said stunt was placed on the poster and all the trailers, when it’s literally the first thing he does in the film.

Anyway, the mission accepted this time is Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) going toe-to-toe with a shadowy organisation known as The Syndicate (a sort of evil IMF), run by the serenely sinister Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). Things are made more difficult by IMF being disbanded (again!) by CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin). However, help is at hand from old friends Benji (Simon Pegg), Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Luther (Ving Rhames) – and possibly from mysterious double (or is it triple?) agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who may or may not be playing for the angels.

This continues the rich vein of form for this series. It’s light, fast-paced and huge amounts of fun that bombs along with plenty of cool stuff happening all the time. Once again, the stunts are pretty stunning and the set-pieces feel like they offer fresh alternatives. In fact Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation might be one of the most fun entries in what’s already a hugely enjoyable franchise.

It’s still very much the Cruise franchise though. There’s a fascinating documentary on the DVD. It’s called “Cruise Control”, which is a revealing pun while you watch Tom constantly stand over the shoulder of Chris McQuarrie during shooting. He sets the camera, he storyboards the scenes, he talks to the actors, he edits the film. To all intents and purposes, he’s at lease the co-director. Perhaps this is why Cruise is so overwhelmingly the focus of the film. He spends a good 15 minutes displaying his chiselled body topless. Alec Baldwin even has a ludicrous speech where he calls Hunt “the living manifestation of destiny”. Fun as the film is, make no mistake it’s a showpiece for Cruise.

Here’s Tom hanging off a plane. Say what you like the guy is committed. Or should be committed.

Not that there is much wrong with that if the end result is such good fun. Simon Pegg does a good job of puncturing the pretentions. Every 15 minutes we also get some sort of gripping action set-piece: Tom fighting in the Vienna Opera House, Tom holding his breath in an underwater computer bank for an unfeasibly long period of time, Tom driving a car then a motorbike (no helmet!) through a series of crazily risky chases… Even when escaping from captivity early from the film, he springs his escape with a nifty upside-down acrobatic jump-climb from a pole. Sure it’s all Tom, but he does it all so well that you can’t not be entertained.

But away from Tom, there is actually a nice sense of family that keeps the story bubbling over. Benji and Hunt increasingly feel like heterosexual life partners (in a really nice touch, it’s Benji who fills the damsel in distress role at the end of the film). The other returning characters, Brandt and Luther, don’t have masses to do but immediately settle into the bickering dynamic that keeps the family ticking over. Ilsa Faust is thrown into this boys-only club partly as a femme fatale, partly as some sort of a potential surrogate stepmum, who the kids are working out whether to trust.

Ilsa Faust could be the best thing about the film, a sort of super-efficient female version of Ethan, bests him a couple of times, and can do all the running, punching, shooting and driving that Tom does almost as well. Sure the camera can’t quite resist a few tracking shots up her body in a nice dress or motorcycle gear, but all-in-all she’s pretty well presented. There is a curious semi-flirtatious, semi-siblingy relationship between Faust and Hunt, with the film eventually settling as a kinda sweet dance of “what might have been”. Ferguson is terrific in the role, not only matching Tom’s athleticism, but also giving Faust a sort of arch mysteriousness. Goodness only knows what Hunt really makes of the first female interest he’s had in the series who can match him.

McQuarrie may, I suspect, be as much Cruise’s collaborator as the director, but he does craft an exciting and confident piece of film making. The Syndicate plot line is suitably twisty and turny – and helped by Sean Harris’ softly spoken, arrogant menace as Lane. You’ll be kept guessing as to the true agenda of nearly everyone involved. Simon McBurney offers good smarm as a shady MI6 head (called, bizarrely, Chief Attlee at every turn hardly the title you’d expect). A spycraft action sequence at the Vienna Opera House is a brilliantly entertaining routine of misdirection, which feels close in tone to the original Mission: Impossible film in its old-school smarts behind new-school flash.

Rogue Nation is, quite simply, a damn entertaining thrill ride – and it doesn’t really have pretensions to be more than that. McQuarrie and Cruise keep the action churning along nicely, each of the thrilling set pieces is exactly that, and the core characters on this rollercoaster are engaging and interesting. McQuarrie is a skilled enough writer to rope together some memorable scenes among the mayhem. It’s charming and hugely entertaining – any doubt that this franchise isn’t here for the long term can be firmly dispelled.