Tag: Tilda Swinton

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

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

Director: Wes Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Ageing, romance and sentiment in Fincher’s handsome shaggy dog story

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Brad Pitt (Benjamin Button), Cate Blanchett (Daisy Fuller), Taraji P Henson (Queenie), Julia Ormond (Caroline Button), Jason Flemyng (Thomas Button), Elias Koteas (Monsieur Gateau), Tilda Swinton (Elizabeth Abbott), Mahershala Ali (Tizzy Weathers), Jared Harris (Captain Mike Clark)

As the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 strikes, a baby boy is born. A baby boy unlike any other, with the appearance and illnesses of a very old man. Discarded by his horrified father (Jason Flemyng), the boy is adopted by Queenie (Taraji P Henson), caretaker of a nursing home. There it becomes clear he is growing backwards: the older he gets, the younger he appears. Young Benjamin will eventually grow into Brad Pitt and spend his life watching those around him grow ever older as he grows ever younger. Most joyful, and painful, of all being his childhood friend Daisy (Cate Blanchett), the woman he will love his whole life.

Fincher’s film is a strange beast. A huge technical triumph, that uses cutting edge special effects and astonishing make-up to age – in both directions – Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett throughout the course of the film (both taken from extreme old age to face-lifted youth), it’s also a whimsical shaggy dog story with elements of a fairy tale that does very little with its astonishing concept other than pepper the script with easily digestible homilies about the purity of the simple life, as if screenwriter Eric Roth was still gorging on the same box of chocolates from which he plucked Forrest Gump.

TCCoBB has a lot going for it: you can see why it was coated with technical Oscars. The ageing and deageing special effects are skilfully and even subtly done, the recreation of a host of periods – from the 1910s to the 1990s and beyond – flawlessly detailed. Claudio Miranda’s photography uses a host of film stocks – from sepia, to scratchy home movie footage style, to luscious technicolour beauty – to reflect time and era constantly. The assemblage of the film has been invested with huge care and attention and, despite its great length, Fincher cuts together (with Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall) an episodic film that manages to keep its momentum and drive going.

Also, it’s a far less vomit-inducing spectacle than the manipulative stylings that coat Forrest Gump. This is in part to Brad Pitt’s restrained and contemplative performance in the lead role: Pitt underplays with surprising effectiveness, capturing Benjamin’s “come what may” attitude and eagerness to go with the flow of the opportunities life offers him. He delivers the narration with an authority just the right side of portentous (for all his rather flat, uninteresting voice) and skilfully manages to invest his body with a physicality quite contrary to his physical appearance (his old body moves with a young man’s casualness, while his younger form carries a slightly world-weary hesitancy).

Benjamin’s mantra becomes one of living your life just as suits you best, not as others expect you to and never worrying about leaving it too late to take chances or make changes. Or at least something like that. To be honest, the weakest part by far of TCCoBB is the lightness and breeziness of its thematic impact. I’ve seen this film three times and, other than a slightly charming shaggy dog story, I’m not quite sure what point it is trying to make – other than straining for a star-cross’d romantic sadness.

This feels like a missed opportunity because there is so much that could be explored here. The film is a nearly unique opportunity to explore how much age – either physical or mental – defines us. A chance to see how our perceptions of a person are shaped as much by what they look like or how they sound, as by who they are. What sort of different perspective on humanity might Benjamin have? How might those around him evaluate, their own lives as they see this him getting younger?

Questions such as these are not touched, the film settling for Benjamin’s whimsical, first-do-no-harm philosophy crossed with a sort of saintly non-interference. The closest it gets to dealing with this is in Benjamin’s friendship and later relationship with Daisy. Old/young Benjamin is told off by Daisy’s grandmother for being a dirty old man, when they first met as children (or old man in his case). Later their lives will drift together and apart, until they form a relationship when both are “the same age” physically. But the film shirks really exploring the implications of this – and outright flees the idea of Benjamin as an increasingly younger man in a romantic relationship with an increasingly older Daisy.

Instead, it settles all too often for easy lessons, comforting parables and charming little vignettes. Benjamin grows up cared for by his adopted mother Queenie (an engaging, if straight forward, performance by Taraji P Henson) – but in the sort of 1920s New Orleans where a racial epithet is never even whispered. He travels the world with Jared Harris’ (rather good) salty sea-dog, falling in love briefly with Tilda Swinton’s lonely champion swimmer turned society wife. He reconnects happily with his father (after all it’s much easier to live a life of free choice if you are the heir to a massive button factory empire). Idyllic 1960s love hits Daisy and Benjamin – a brief shot of a cruise missile taking off is the only reference to those troubled times we see.

It’s all very easy, romantically toned, sweet and easily digestible. Even writing it down highlights how these are charming, eccentrically tinged, vignettes. All events and experiences come together with a vague “lessons learned” impact, as old Benjamin regresses into a teenager, a child and then an infant. But it could have been so much more. A real study of what makes us human, a real look at how events and perspectives define us. It isn’t. Heck, other than watching Pitt travel handsomely around the world on a motorbike in a late montage, we don’t really get much of a sense of how being young/old may impact him.

Which isn’t to say it’s not enjoyable. It all proceeds with a great deal of charm and love, much of which has clearly been invested in every inch of its making. The acting from (and chemistry between) Pitt and Blanchett is very effective. But it feels like a slightly missed opportunity, a film that settles for being a warm, reassuring cuddle when it could have sat you down and helped you understand your life. For all its slight air of importance, it’s a crowd-pleasing, if slightly sentimental, film.

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Dev Patel makes a charming lead in this Dickens adaptation that finds the comedy but misses the heart

Dir: Armando Iannucci

Cast: Dev Patel (David Copperfield), Tilda Swinton (Betsey Trotwood), Hugh Laurie (Mr Dick), Peter Capaldi (Mr Micawber), Ben Whishaw (Uriah Heep), Paul Whitehouse (Mr Peggotty), Aneurin Barnard (James Steerforth), Daisy May Cooper (Peggotty), Morfydd Clark (Dora Spenlow/Clara Copperfield), Benedict Wong (Mr Wickfield), Darren Boyd (Mr Murdstone), Gwendoline Christie (Jane Murdstone), Anthony Welsh (Ham Peggotty), Rosalind Eleazar (Agnes Wickfield), Nikki Amuka-Bird (Mrs Steerforth), Anna Maxwell Martin (Mrs Strong)

If Charles Dickens ever had a favourite child, it was probably David Copperfield. His novel – heavily inspired by events in his own life and upbringing – is an epic masterpiece, part coming-of-age story, part heart-warming family saga, part social satire. It’s quite a challenge to boil down its hundreds and hundreds of pages – and multiple plot points and characters – into less than two hours, but that’s the task Armando Iannucci takes on here. Does it work?

Well, to be honest, not quite. There is a lot to admire here, I’ll say that straightaway. And maybe I’m hard on it as I’ve read (or listened to) the novel at least three times. But for me this version drains out the heart of the novel. It zeroes in on the comedy – and there are several scenes and characters that are inarguably funny – but in doing so it removes or peels away anything bittersweet or with even a hint of sadness. It’s funny, but also a strangely empty and unengaging version of the story that it’s hard to get invested in and finally seems to drag.

Iannucci uses a terrific framing device, inspired by Dickens’ own public readings of his work. The film opens with Copperfield (a wonderfully jovial and engaging Dev Patel) publically introducing his novel to a theatre full of people which, with a flourish, disappears as he walks into the scenery and into his own past. Iannucci sprinkles his film with little flourishes like this to remind us of the semi-created nature of what we are watching, from Mr Murdstone’s hand looming into the Peggottys’ boat to pluck Copperfield into the next scene, through to the use of projected imagery at key points to fill in visually backstories the characters in the scene are relating.

The book has been well pruned and structured – and this is in some ways a triumph of compression, since it ticks off nearly all the main storylines of the plot (with some changes) and includes all the main characters. The real purist will decry such things as the loss of Barkis and Mr Micawber’s famous lines, or the translation of Mr Creakle into a factory owner or Rosa Dartworth into Steerforth’s mother. But these are necessities of adaptation and much of the storyline remains the same (if abbreviated). The script punches up the comedy a great deal – Iannucci has been vocal in his feeling that Dickens does not get the appreciation he deserves as a comic writer.

The script also digs up a few gems in the novel – Copperfield’s nervousness in reading, his inability to read to Murdstone’s gaze, is imaginatively reinterpreted as dyslexia. The semi-Freudian longing he feels for the warmth and innocence of his lost childhood is neatly captured by casting Morfydd Clark (very endearing and charmingly ditsy) as both his mother and his first love Dora. There are several laugh-out loud moments and a charmingly freewheeling love for absurdity.

But what doesn’t work is that the heart and soul of the novel has been stripped out. There is, to put it frankly, no pain or difficulty here. The tears in Dev Patel’s eyes at the end of the film as he closes his recital with the audience and reflects on the triumphs and losses of his life feel unearned. Put frankly nothing seems that hard, for all poverty rears its head at time. Even the Murdstones are less fearsome and cruel than they need to be. Worst of all, anything of any real emotional depth or tragedy from the book is removed. The two key tragic deaths of the book are actively reversed here, with both Dora and Ham surviving at the end. The complexities of Copperfield’s feelings for Dora and Agnes are resolved with immense ease for a traditional happy ending in a garden of the heroes surrounded by friends and families (exactly the sort of happy ending that Greta Gerwig gently poked fun at in Little Women). 

It’s all boiled down and told for jokes and the emotional engagement just isn’t there. Dev Patel enters the film too early – Copperfield is a young adult before he even heads to his aunt’s house – meaning the lost, vulnerable sense of sad childhood turning into a happy one is completely lost, and Copperfield’s fragility is too quickly brushed aside. Mr Micawber (a funny turn from Capaldi, but far too wheedling) is played so much for laughs that his essential decency and kindness is lost in favour of a man who spends his life borrowing cash. Too often humour is the first and only port of call, and finally it crushes the heart out of the story.

There are triumphs in the film’s cast. Hugh Laurie is simply outstanding as Mr Dick – warm, funny, wise, surreal, eccentric, half a philosopher, half an engaging and excited child – it’s Laurie’s finest performance ever on film. Benedict Wong is very funny as the alcoholic Mr Wicklfield. Tilda Swinton has great fun as a battleaxe but wise Miss Trotwood. Nikki Annuka-Bird could cut glass as Mrs Steerforth. Aneurin Barnard makes for a charmingly dissolute Steerforth. Ben Whishaw is terrific as the unctuous and ambitious Uriah Heep. The colour-blind casting works a treat to bring a range of wonderful actors in.

It’s just a shame the story doesn’t translate as well. There is a theme somewhere in here of Copperfield trying to work out his identity (much prominence is given to his multiple names and nicknames) but it never really takes flight, serving as a fig leaf of an arc rather than an actual arc. It’s a film full of jokes and fine moments – but with no heart, and no real engagement with the audience, it ends up feeling far longer than reading the book.

Hail Caesar! (2016)

George Clooney is a kidnapped actor in the Coen brothers 1950’s Hollywood spoof

Director: Joel and Ethan Coen

Cast: Josh Brolin (Eddie Mannix), George Clooney (Baird Whitlock), Alden Ehrenreich (Hobie Doyle), Ralph Fiennes (Laurence Laurentz), Scarlett Johansson (DeeAnna Moran), Frances McDormand (CC Calhoun), Tilda Swinton (Thora Thacker/Thessaly Thacker), Channing Tatum (Burt Gurney), Alison Pill (Connie Mannix), Jonah Hill (Joseph Silverman), Emily Beecham (Diedre), Clancy Brown (Co-star Hail Caesar!), Michael Gambon (Narrator)

The Coen brothers’ CV is a bit of a strange thing. It’s one part thriller, one part engagingly brilliant comedy – and then there are a collection of screwball-style entertainments, off-the-wall lightweight comedies (usually about dummies or sharp-talking professionals), as if every so often they needed a palate cleanser. Hail Caesar! falls very much into that final camp. 

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a studio manager and fixer in 1950s Hollywood, whose job is to keep the stars in line and the films running smoothly. The latest fly-in-his-ointment is the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the studio’s prestigious sword-and-sandals-and-Christianity epic Hail Caesar!. Mannix has to settle the ransom demand, while struggling to keep the news quiet – and manage the production of several other problems including a secretly pregnant Hollywood sweetheart (Scarlett Johansson) and a cowboy-turned-actor (Alden Ehrenreich) struggling with his latest movie requiring him to speak and act rather than just sing and ride a horse.

Hail Caesar! is a mixed bag. There are some wonderful comic sketches in here, the sort of brilliant highlights you could quite happily watch again and again. The problem is these sketches are part of a narrative framework that never really catches fire, that can’t seem to decide how much it is a surrealist comedy and how much it is a genuine Hollywood “behind-the-scenes” slice of life. So I found I delighted in the sketches, and the hilarious reconstructions of some of the studio fodder of the 1950s – while drifting through the general plot of the movie. The laughs are very tightly focused on the stand-alone sketches, and rarely develop from the plot of the movie itself.

Those sketches, though, are brilliant – and the Coens have secured what are effectively a series of stand-out cameos to deliver them. The highlight is certainly a hilarious sequence featuring Ralph Fiennes as a superior English director and Alden Ehrenreich as a cowboy-turned-actor crammed into a period drama in order to “change his image”. It’s a brilliant idea, that revolves around Fiennes’ barely concealed frustration Ehrenreich’s awkwardness in front of the camera, eagerness to please and most of all his accent which so badly affects his elocution that he simply cannot pronounce the line “Would that it were so simple”. The sequence is brilliantly funny – take a look at it down here. In fact it’s so good, it might be too good. Nothing else in the film really touches it.

There are some other good sketches in here as well. Most of them revolve around the loving recreation of Hollywood movies. The movie-within-the-movie Hail Caesar! is a perfect recreation of the Quo Vadis style of movies: large sets, hilariously over-blown dialogue, heavy-handed Christian messages (“Squint at the grandeur!” Clooney’s character is directed in one reaction shot to The Christ – as the filmmakers persist in calling him) and gaudy colour and sets. Clooney himself does a pitch perfect parody of the style and delivery of Robert Taylor.

We also get some spot-on parodies of Hollywood musical styles of the time. Scarlett Johansson plays a Esther Williams-style actress who stars in a series of swimming pool musicals (a bizarre fad of the time). Fiennes is directing a creakingly glacial Broadway-adaptation. Channing Tatum plays an actor in a Minnelli style musical. The tap-dancing sequence we see being filmed is, by the way, another brilliant sketch – a toe-tapping parody song, which also showcases Tatum’s grace and style as a dancer. It’s such a good parody that it actually sort of crosses over into being a genuinely enjoyable slice of song and dance.

I also struggled, as I tend to sometimes, with the artificiality of the Coens’ comedy – there is always an air of them (and their actors) wanting the audience to know that they are far smarter than the dummies in the film. I get this feeling a lot from Clooney in particular – while his film-within-a-film sequences are brilliant, it feels like he never feels much affection for the character outside these sequences. He wants us to know that Clooney is not as dumb or vain as Whitlock is. It’s this lack of empathy that doesn’t quite make the performance work. Empathy is why Eldenreich is the stand-out performer of the film. He plays Hobie Doyle with a real affection and warmth – he makes the character feel like a sweet and genuine person. While Hobie is always a comic spoof, he also feels like he could be a real person – making him so much easier to relate to for the audience.

Hail Caesar! is a film that works in fits and starts, not all the way through. Josh Brolin is fine as Mannix, and his fast-talking, plate juggling, problem solving throws up some funny lines – but his story never really engages the audience as much as it should, and the Catholic guilt Mannix balances in his life never really becomes clear. The Coens are reaching for some point about art and faith – of how film makers may tell themselves they are making something for art, when they actually work for faceless businessmen interested only in making money – but it never really brings this art vs. money argument into place. Does a picture have worth if we talk about worth enough? It’s a question we may as well ask about Hail Caesar itself.

Because the parodies and sketches of old Hollywood movies are so brilliantly done, whenever we drift away from them to the actual plot you find yourself losing interest. It’s a film that actually works better as a few sketches extracted from YouTube – I could happily watch Fiennes and Eldenreich’s scene, or Tatum’s dance sequence, or Clooney’s Taylor spoof in isolation – I don’t really feel the need to watch the entire movie again.

Caravaggio (1986)

Nigel Terry is Caravaggio in Derek Jarman’s extraordinary meditation on art Caravaggio

Director: Derek Jarman

Cast: Nigel Terry (Michelangelo de Caravaggio), Sean Bean (Ranuccio Thomasoni), Tilda Swinton (Lena), Garry Cooper (Davide), Dexter Fletcher (Young Caravaggio), Spencer Leigh (Jerusaleme), Michael Gough (Cardinal del Monte), Nigel Davenport (Giustinani), Robbie Coltrane (Cardinal Scipione Borghese), Dawn Archibald (Pipo), Jonathan Hyde (Baglione), Jack Birkett (Pope)

Derek Jarman started his career as a painter, before he began making his own eccentric, art-house films, shot through with a fascination with visual imagery, colliding time periods, abuse of power and homosexuality. For years, Jarman had sought funding to make a biographical film about Caravaggio – one of his (and my) favourite artists. The film he eventually produced, Caravaggio, is quite simply not like anything you’ve really seen before – partly a masterpiece of striking imagery and inventiveness, partly a groaningly semi-pretentious, self-conscious piece of art cinema. What it never is though is dull.

Told in a disjointed series of flashbacks, in which not every scene necessarily connects with the scenes preceding and following it, Caravaggio as a young boy (Dexter Fletcher) is taken under the wing of Cardinal del Monte (an imperiously controlling Michael Gough): creepy part art patron, part pervert. Caravaggio (Nigel Terry) becomes a successful painter, while never losing his taste for the wildness and violence of the streets of Rome. He becomes fascinated by street fighter Ranuccio Thomasoni (Sean Bean) and Thomasoni’s lover Lena (Tilda Swinton), the three of them forming a sensually suggestive menage-a-trois, which eventually leads to tragedy. All this is framed with the dying Caravaggio, remembering in a semi-poetic voiceover feelings and moments from his life.

Firstly, for any fan of Caravaggio, this film is a visual treat. Every frame is lit and framed to be as reminiscent as possible of the style of the master. Many scenes are framed either in bare, stone rooms with single windows, or in sets emerging out of an inky blackness. Lighting often strikes diagonally across the frame, just as in Caravaggio’s best work. A number of scenes seem lit from a single source, such as a candle. On top of this, a number of scenes feature either the creation of, or inspiration for, a number of Caravaggio’s most memorable artworks: for those familiar with his work, it’s a delight to see these either recreated in the studio by models, or suggestively composed out of scenes. For an art lover, it’s a visual treat.

Jarman also has an intricate understanding of the creation of art, and when we watch Caravaggio at work it genuinely feels like watching a real artist, engaging with the world, recording images in his mind’s eye, and preparing his next work. The scenes watching Caravaggio create his masterpieces are fascinating in their detail and the careful build-up of paint to create an effect. The effort of models to stay still for the painter is constantly stressed. It’s a tribute to the work that goes into creation, even if the film succumbs to a few pretentious clichés (at one point Caravaggio and Ranuccio fight playfully with knives and Ranuccio cuts Caravaggio: of course Caravaggio smears the blood over Ranucci’s face. That tends to be what artists in films do). 

Jarman, however, makes a film that is deeper and more suggestive than that. This is a fascinating meditation on power and patronage in the world of art. Caravaggio is a genius, but also a tool of the people above him in the pecking order. One of the first things we see is the teenage Caravaggio selling first a painting, then his body, to a pervy art collector. The patrons call the shots here, and if they want to put your work on their wall, or their hands down your pants, the artist just needs to fall into line. Caravaggio himself is little different – the models he works with are treated with a certain warmth, but there is a clear hierarchy here. His relationship with Ranuccio and Lena is rooted initially in power – he can effectively buy them or their bodies, because he controls the money available to them. The renaissance was not a time of equality: everyone is in hock to someone else, and everyone is defined by what they can trade, be that their art, their body or both.

The film has a clear sensual charge to it in every frame, despite not containing a single scene of sex. There are highly suggestive moments of sexual abuse and desire throughout. It’s heavily implied Cardinal del Monte’s interest in the young Caravaggio is not completely innocent, as del Monte sits with him in bed teaching him to read. During their first modelling session, Caravaggio tosses a series of coins at Ranuccio, each of which the man inserts suggestively into his mouth. Every scene with Lena tingles with sensuality – either with Caravaggio, Ranuccio or the mysteriously powerful Cardinal Borghese (a corrupt looking Robbie Coltrane). 

Perhaps the most striking feature of the film though is its highly unique look. Taking his cue from Caravaggio himself – who painted the subjects of his historical pictures in contemporary dress and locations – Jarman and costume designer Sandy Powell dress the cast in a series of shabby, 1940s-1970s clothing (with the exception of a scene in the Vatican, which is established as a fancy dress party). Caravaggio is barely seen without a cigarette in his mouth, and dresses like a bohemian from Montmartre. Plenty of modern props are introduced – a banker fiddles with a pocket calculator, the writer Baglione hammers his criticisms into a typewriter while flicking through a luscious magazine of Caravaggio prints. Ranuccio cleans a motorbike.

All this manages to not only make the film continually visually striking, but also playfully reminds the audience all the time that they are watching a version of a reality – not a true story but a fictionalisation of the painter’s life. It gives Jarman an artistic licence that he exploits to the full, and makes this a film that really sticks in the memory. It’s an inventiveness you wish you saw more in films rather than slavish historical recreation.

Caravaggio is not a masterpiece – it’s a little too self-consciously arty for that. It almost delights at times in being disjointed and hard to follow. Some scenes leap over what seems like years of events. There is no real narrative through-line. The poetic voiceover can start to wear you down – I searched it for meaning, but I’m not sure if there was much there. Saying that, although this is very much a director’s film, there are some fine performances. Terry does a very good job as the artist himself, capturing a sense of the creative spark behind the eyes. Bean is excellent in one of his first roles as the earthy, insecure Ranuccio. Tilda Swinton however steals the film (it’s easy to see why she became Jarman’s muse) as the beguiling and mysterious Lena.

Caravaggio is that rare thing: a film about an artist that seems to understand art, and feel like a work of art itself. It’s unique and eye-catching and memorable as well as having a neat eye for the tragic. I was strangely mesmerised by it throughout. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a very good one.

Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998)

Derek Jacobi plays way against-type in dark art biography, Love is the Devil

Director: John Maybury

Cast: Derek Jacobi (Francis Bacon), Daniel Craig (George Dyer), Tilda Swinton (Muriel Belcher), Anne Lambton (Isabel Rawsthorne), Adrian Scarborough (Daniel Farson), Karl Johnson (John Deakin), Annabel Brooks (Henrietta Moraes)

Maybury’s film about the relationship between the painter Francis Bacon (a revelatory Derek Jacobi) and his lover, small-time crook George Dyer (Daniel Craig), is an overtly arty piece of cinema. It opens with Bacon mourning Dyer’s death – then flashes back to Dyer literally falling into the picture (Maybury films Craig falling through darkness over the credits) before crashing through Bacon’s skylight during a bungled robbery. Here to rob the joint, he ends up getting invited to bed. So Dyer stays on as live-in lover, model and odd-job man.

Maybury’s plans for making a film about Bacon looked like they had been scuppered early, when the Bacon Estate refused permission for a single Bacon to actually appear in the film (there are a few ersatz Bacons at the edges of frames). Maybury gets around this ingeniously: he effectively turns the entire movie into a massive Bacon painting.

Rarely have fish-eyed lenses been used so much. They are all over scenes here, distorting and ballooning faces. Maybury uses shots through pint glasses and lightbulbs to bend images. The lighting (brilliantly shot by John Mathieson) recreates the visual discomfort of Bacon’s work and his use of block background colours (particularly reds and browns). Famous Bacon flourishes are reproduced – lightbulbs and mirrors appear particularly prominently. We may not see Bacon paint, but we watch him paint himself (brushing his teeth with Vim, using spit to curve his eyelashes), all while staring into a three-surface mirror – becoming his own Triptych.

The tragic Dyer even dreams in Bacon paintings: haunted by a crouching flayed man on a diving board (a dark twist on the paintings Bacon would make of him after his death). Dyer even ends the film literally consumed by Bacon’s work – he exits his hotel room into a dreamy reconstruction of Bacon’s Triptych in Memory of George Dyer, effectively recreating the painting in motion before ending it slumped lifelessly forward. It’s a neat visual image for a theme that runs throughout – the weak, pathetic Dyer is consumed by Bacon so completely, he literally becomes a painting.

Triptych in Memory of George Dyer – the visuals and design of which are brilliantly recreated in the movie

Poor George Dyer. It’s hard not to feel sorry for such a weakling, hopelessly out of his depth. Craig’s performance as an incompetent, strangely innocent (“Do you actually make a living from painting?”) petty crook and alcoholic is perfect – a fine reminder of what a great actor he is. He’s mostly a silent passenger when Bacon socialises with the hoi polloi, but this makes it even sadder to see him attempt to take on Bacon’s “life of the party” expressiveness later when regaling his working-class friends, limply imitating Bacon’s “cheerio” as he downs another glass of champagne.

This film doesn’t shy away from the dark destructiveness of the relationship: or from exploring Bacon’s promiscuous sexual masochism, and his emotional sadism. Several sex scenes are modelled after Bacon’s paintings. The roughness of the sex is constantly at the forefront. If you’ve ever wanted to see a naked James Bond preparing to beat a prone, topless Brother Cadfael with a belt, then this is probably the film you’ve been waiting your whole life to see.

Many of the film’s successes are due to Craig – and to Jacobi, who is a revelation in the best film role of his entire career. Not only is he strikingly physically similar to Bacon, but he attacks the part with a waspish bitterness and cruelty, giving a dominant performance of Bacon’s selfishness and malice. The small moments of painting we see are performed more like fights then acts of creation. However, Jacobi allows enough moments of sensitivity – the hints of sadness and regret he feels after another act of dismissive cruelty, the small touches of affection intermixed with rejections. The film makes clear Bacon was an abusive partner, and Jacobi’s performance projects all the dark charisma you could possibly want.

So why isn’t the film better regarded? The answer is there at the top: this is an overtly arty film, in many ways a commentary on the artist and his work rather than a drama. Its visual dynamism is impressive, but wearing. It’s frequently not subtle – if you were in any doubt about Bacon’s semi-sexual arousal at violence, we get to see his jubilant reaction to blood being sprayed across his face at a boxing match. Later Jacobi waxes lyrical over the beauty of a car crash while the camera pans across twisted bodies. The edgy, distorting style and overbearing dirtiness of the action may be true to much of the tone and style of Bacon’s work – but it’s hardly a bundle of fun to watch.

Love is the Devil may get close to an understanding of what drove Bacon, and what lies underneath his art – but it goes about it a very self-important way, in a film that often feels a little too pleased with itself. Craig is very good, and Jacobi an absolute revelation – but it doesn’t change the fact that the film is almost deliberately alienating and difficult. Few other characters (including an unrecognisable Tilda Swinton) get much of a look in, and the claustrophobic focus finally starts to wear the viewer down. It’s a must for admirers of Bacon (though you’ll be hard pressed to admire the man after viewing this!), but it’s a film that delights a little too much in being difficult to watch.

Doctor Strange (2016)

Benedict Cumberbatch goes into battle with magic. Silly but in a good way.

Director: Scott Derrickson

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr Stephen Strange), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Karl Mordo), Rachel McAdams (Christine Palmer), Mads Mikkelsen (Kaecilius), Tilda Swinton (The Ancient One), Benedict Wong (Wong), Michael Stuhlbarg (Dr Nicodemus West), Benjamin Bratt (Jonathan Pangborn)

Arrogant surgeon (is there any other kind in the movies?) Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) loses the fine motor control of his hands after a car crash caused by his reckless driving. With science unable to find a cure, he travels across the world to find another solution, eventually joining a secret group of sorcerers, led by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who use energy from parallel universes to perform feats of magic in our world. Trained by Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) he is absorbed into a clash between the sorcerers and a rogue former protégé of The Ancient One, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who wants to destroy the boundaries between worlds and unleash chaos.

In a film franchise that threatens to get increasingly samey, Doctor Strange is in many ways a breath of fresh air. Its twisting, mind-bending special effects (part Escher, part Inception) are stunning and showcase a great deal of visual and narrative imagination in the film, immediately making it look different from the dozens of city-smashing films we’ve seen in the Marvel franchise. It’s also told with a fair amount of wit, tongue-in-cheek beats and some lovely sight gags (Strange’s Cloak of Levitation is clearly inspired by the Carpet from Aladdin). This lightness of touch is essential to stop this concept feeling silly: with a more po-faced style this story, full of magic and things like “the Eye of Agamatto”, would have stumbled over its own ridiculousness.

This is however pretty close to being the best comic-book origins film, and certainly in the top five of this franchise. For a start, despite the visual glory, it feels like a focused more personal story: there are only really 6-7 characters (compare that to the sprawling cast of Captain America: Civil War), and the real heart of the film is the lead character’s struggle to overcome an existential crisis and find a new purpose while rediscovering his humanity. Even the final confrontation is a spin on the formula, avoiding city-wrecking super-punches in favour of intelligence and humour saving the day. It still crams in the action, and the characters are still cartoons made flesh, but at least they have been given a real depth here. There is an emotional weight to the story that makes you care about Strange and his world.

No actor right now is better able to embody intellectual brilliance matched with cool arrogance and societal disconnection than Benedict Cumberbatch. So in many ways, Strange is a part that falls well within his comfort zone. But Cumberbatch shows he can carry a major motion picture by making Strange a charismatic lead who grows and develops. Strange is deliberately unlikeable at first, but Cumberbatch invests him with an underlying vulnerability and a cocky charm that is increasingly broadened and shaded as the film progresses. Almost without realising it, you find yourself actually rather liking him halfway through (while still happy to give him a smack in the mouth for his cockiness). Cumberbatch is in almost every scene and carries the film effortlessly.

The film is dominated by it’s lead character, but gives moments to the rest of the cast. Tilda Swinton overcomes the controversy of her casting by investing The Ancient One with both a serene wisdom with dark hints of anger and impatience bubbling under the surface. Ejiofor is good as an increasingly disillusioned mentor and Wong has some great comic beats. Mads Mikkelsen, one of the greatest actors in the world, is rather wasted as a villain who never becomes quite as interesting as you’d hope. Most misused is Rachael McAdams, whose character serves very little purpose other than “ex-girlfriend” – even the director, in an interview, described her role as being there to love him, so that we can see why we should love him.

It’s still a Marvel film, and it still follows the Marvel formula, however newly presented it might be. The arc of despair, rejection, slow progress, revelation, disillusionment, rallying and overcoming personal problems is pretty recognisable from everything from Thor to Iron Man. But it is enough of an inversion, it’s got a good enough script, it’s directed with enough focus on character as well as action, and it has a sufficiently good leading actor to lift and elevate the whole idea into something that feels richer while keeping it entertaining. It’s a very good comic book movie, and it’s trying to do something different, And it mostly succeeds.