Tag: Timothy Spall

Secrets and Lies (1996)

Secrets and Lies (1996)

Hard truths and deep emotion combine with Mike Leigh’s warmth and humanism in this powerful, spectacular film

Director: Mike Leigh

Cast: Timothy Spall (Maurice), Phyllis Logan (Monica), Brenda Blethyn (Cynthia), Claire Rushbrook (Roxanne), Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Hortense), Elizabeth Berrington (Jane), Michele Austin (Dionne), Lee Ross (Paul), Lesley Manville (Social worker), Ron Cook (Stuart), Emma Amos (Scarred girl)

“Secrets and lies. We’re all in pain! Why can’t we share our pain?”. These words come from family photographer Maurice (Timothy Spall), fighting a losing battle against his own pain while doing his best to hold his family together. It’s the mission statement for one of Mike Leigh’s most powerful films, a heart-rending drama that left me tearful. This is as gut-wrenching as Leigh can get, with actors delivering performances that feel ripped from their souls. Despite this, it gets me because this is a hopeful film about the power of love, whose anguish builds from watching what could (and should) be a loving family, failing (almost until the end) to share pain long suppressed due to shame.

That family are the Purley’s. Maurice is a successful photographer with a charming house in suburbia, dotingly maintained by his perfectionist wife Monica (Phyllis Logan). Sister Cynthia, who effectively raised Maurice, remains a working-class single-Mum to 21-year-old Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook). This class difference fuels resentments between Cynthia and Monica.

Unspoken secrets abound. But our first introduction is middle-class black optometrist played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Hortense Cumberbatch. (A running joke in the film is everyone’s unfamiliarity with this surname – how times change!). Hortense was adopted and now, with both her parents dead, wants to make contact with her birth mother. That birth mother – to her shock – is Cynthia, who gave birth to Hortense at 15. The relationship between Hortense and Cynthia becomes a catalyst for searing revelations, and shattering of emotional barriers, in the Purley family.

Leigh’s film is a triumph of his quiet, observational, unobtrusive directorial style, grounded on a deep and profound understanding of people and their strengths and foibles. As with his earlier films, the characters were developed after an intensive rehearsal process, with the actors given information only when their characters were. Secrets and Lies takes his approach to everyday life to its zenith, finding levels of tragedy (and warmth) in the simple pain of carrying on that other dramas can only dream of.

It is about how hopes can be both sustaining and damaging. A refrain heard in the movie is “You can’t miss what you’ve never had”. Au contrarie. The film is stuffed with people deep in grief about, or desperate to find, things they’ve never had. Hortense wants to discover where she came from. Cynthia’s life is one of lonely disappointment, resenting the domestic contentment of Maurice and Monica. Maurice and Monica are anguished by their childless marriage, Monica resenting Cynthia for having had the child she longs for. Roxanne wants a stable family, resenting her mother’s clumsy confirmation seemingly everyday that her birth was an accident (even if not a regretted one).

But, in typical British style, no one can talk about any of this. Instead, the Purleys cling to impressions of what the other family members are like. Monica sees Cynthia as a hopeless deadbeat, who can’t care for her children. Cynthia sees Monica as a snob, who stopped Maurice having a child. Roxanne sees Cynthia as constantly disappointed in her, Cynthia sees her as difficult, rebellious young woman unable to look after herself. And Maurice attempts to hold all this together, positioning himself as a jovial head-of-the-family, and whacking down any pain of his own.

Hortense, by comparison, is a model of well-adjusted upbringing. Leigh’s film doesn’t let us see much of her family – we witness her (non-adopted) siblings feuding over an inheritance – but the film constantly enforces the love she got from her parents, from the film’s beautifully staged opening at her mother’s funeral to her smiling reminiscences of parents (flaws and all) who did their best, were honest with her and taught her she was loved. Seen in conversation with her best friend Dionne (a neat single scene cameo by Michele Austin), she’s humane, warm and self-aware enough about her hopes and failings.

But she also has the fixated determination of the middle-classes – the sort of go-getting attitude completely alien to Cynthia, to whom events always happen rather than being something she starts. She disregards the advice of a social worker (a wonderful cameo of rushed professionalism, tinged with just enough genuine care by Lesley Manville) to make contact through social services and instead takes the plunge to contact Cynthia herself.

One of Secrets and Lies many strengths is its open-eyed honesty about the joy and pain of adoption. Hortense, as noted, found a loving family through adoption. But still she wants to know, why did her mother not even hold her when she was born? The answer isn’t simple, as Cynthia’s devastated reaction to the question shows: because if she held her, she would never have let go. This is the emotional centre-piece of an emotionally devastating but deeply uplifting scene at the centre of the movie as Hortense and Cynthia meet for the first time.

Shot in a café in a single near-seven-minute uninterrupted take with a stationary camera (a stylistic choice Leigh repeats at a family BBQ later in the film, as we wait for inevitable secrets to flood out), this is an acting masterpiece. Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste (both Oscar-nominated) give extraordinary performances throughout, but achieve the sublime here. Blethyn delivers nearly every line as if it was being pulled out of her soul by pliers, at points convulsed with teary shame unable to look Hortense in the eye: Jean-Baptiste, so assured throughout, is quiet, almost abashed but clinging to a professionalism to help resolve facing emotion head-on (right down to sitting next to Cynthia rather than opposite her).

Emotionally truthful performances run throughout. Spall is superb as a man who is no pushover – he quietly but determinedly shrugs off a drunken former mentor (a neat cameo from Ron Cook) asking to be given a chance – but who will bend over backwards to accommodate those he loves. Logan battens down hysterical guilt and grief under a house-proud fussiness. Rushbrook is a cauldron of resentments under a surly exterior. The relationship between Cynthia and Hortense – beautifully played by both actresses – quickly becomes one of genuine affection, for all their vast differences.

The film builds towards a celebratory BBQ for Roxanne’s birthday – which Cynthia brings Hortense to, claiming her as work friend. Leigh uses a long take as the family eats (we, the audience, constantly awaiting the emotional walls to break) before a devastating sequence as one after another family secrets come tumbling out, shattering emotional reserves, characters clinging to each other for comfort in floods of repressed tears, stunned onlookers open-mouthed.

It’s a scene of huge emotional impact – I cried – as regrets, loss and resentments built from years of understanding tumble out. But it’s hopeful, uplifting almost, because this is not the end. It’s a start. It’s very clear that, having finally said what they are really feeling, the extended family can move in a way that was impossible at the start. That they are closer now than ever. Hortense is the agent of positivity, and Leigh’s film closes with a quiet scene with Roxanne that suggests they have every chance of forming a warm, genuine, relationship.

Secrets and Lies is a superb film, a masterclass observation and domestic near-tragedy, powered by extraordinary performances of lived-in reality from the actors, that carries emotional strength but also has a rich vein of hope running through it. It is one of Leigh’s masterpieces.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Blood, guts and gore in this horror-tinged, claret-dipped Burton adaptation of Sondheim’s musical

Director: Tim Burton

Cast: Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd), Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs Lovett), Alan Rickman (Judge Turpin), Timothy Spall (Beadle Bamford), Jayne Wisener (Johanna Barker), Sacha Baron Cohen (Adolfo Pirelli), Laura Michelle Kelly (Lucy Barker/Beggar Woman), Jamie Campbell Bower (Anthony Hope), Ed Sanders (Toby Ragg)

Sondheim’s blood-soaked musical about the infamous serial-killing barber, intent on revenge against the judge who transported him to Australia and stole his late wife, took years to make it to screen. His intensely theatrical, intricate musical masterpieces don’t always translate to film – they lack that crowd-pleasing oomph. What with Todd slashing throats with misanthropic glee, aided by besotted neighbour Mrs Lovett baking the bodies into pies, and no wonder Sweeney was a difficult pitch.

However, it’s practically tailor-made for the High Priest of Gothic Oddity, Tim Burton. A lifelong Hammer horror fan, it’s no surprise Burton had loved the musical since first seeing it in 1980. He’s a perfect match for this stuff, and his film is a bleak, heavily desaturated, oppressively grim and strikingly optimism-free descent into a subterranean hell, with almost every scene accompanied by a free-flowing deluge of Shining-style levels of blood.

Sweeney Todd is a design triumph (Oscar-winning for its production design and nominated for its costumes). It’s London is like an Oliver! set run through a fevered nightmare slasher film. Everything is grandiose, filthy and above all cold, oppressive and unwelcoming. Most of the light comes from the reflection of moonlight on the blades of Todd’s razors, and the basement of his building is a gruesome horror show, with a pumping furnace and mangled body parts in a mincer.

The film shocked critics expecting a more traditional Broadway musical translation with the dark glee it embraces the gore. When throats are slashed – which occurs as regularly as clockwork – blood sprays over the actors, camera and virtually everything else. Sweeney’s chair drops his victims head-first into the cellar: each fall is seen in terrible detail, bodies landing with a sickening crunch, twisted out of shape and heads smashed open on the stone floor. There is little black comedy, the film embracing flat-out horror.

It also focuses on the black hate in Sweeney’s heart, his fixation on revenge at any costs and the lack of any trace of humanity within him. While Mrs Lovett longs to turn this “relationship” into something more intimate and loving – she even sings about it in By the Sea to the stony-faced indifference of Sweeney – to Sweeney she is little more than a convenient means to an end. Bravely, no real attempt is made to make us feel real sympathy for this brutal killer – and the visceral brutality of his killings only adds to this.

The film is dominated by its two leads, simplifying the musical down to something leaner, swifter and meaner. This is a dark revenge tragedy doubling as a character study of its two leads’ souls. These places a lot of pressure on Depp and Carter. Sweeney Todd was very much at the apex of a trend in musical film-making where stars were trained to sing, rather than casting skilled singers who can act. Sweeney Todd is an immensely complex musical, with deeply challenging lead parts. Even using the intimacy and immediacy of the camera to bring the scale down (they don’t need to hit the back row), it still must have been intimidating to sing with very little experience.

Depp and Carter however acquit themselves well. Working with a director they both trust implicitly, they give dark, twisted performances of unspoken longings. Depp, in one of his finest and most restrained performances (which says a lot about the irritating abandon of many of his other roles) that stresses Sweeney’s sociopathic coldness. He is a tortured man, turning his unhappiness and self-loathing into a weapon to slice open the world. Carter channels sociopathic eccentricity with a tenderness, vulnerability and desperation for love.

As singers however, they are competent rather than inspired. Depp goes for an earthy, Bowie-esque, Rex Harrison-paced growl that conveys the emotion but simplifies the songs and robs them of some of their impact. Carter’s more lively rendition carries more character, but in both cases you wonder what would have happened if the film had married its cinematic visuals with assured Broadway performers. The best singers by far are Jamie Campbell Bower (whose role as the would-be lover of Sweeney’s long-lost daughter is heavily cut) and Ed Sanders, who is excellent as the orphan taken under Mrs Lovett’s wing (West End-star Laura Michelle Kelly, perversely, barely sings a note).

The focus on Sweeney and Mrs Lovett leaves little room for the other actors. Rickman brings a subtle perversion to Judge Turpin – even though, bless him, he’s not the best singer – and Spall a creepy eccentricity to the Beadle. But this is the Sweeney show, a decision that robs the film of any trace of the more hopeful elements of the original, to zero in on the dark horrors.

The film pulls few punches, but never makes us care about Sweeney. For all the trims, it’s surprisingly poorly-paced (especially considering its short run-time). Such little importance is given to the supporting characters, time feels wasted when we are with them. The cuts also stress how little actual plot there is around Sweeney and Mrs Lovett (once they decide to embark on a life of crime, there is little that happens to sustain the film through its middle act).

The film is a Gothic slasher triumph, but it’s perhaps neither a great musical nor a truly engaging tragedy. A slice more humanity, in between the slashed throats, might have helped a great deal.

Spencer (2021)

Kristen Stewart channels the People’s Princess in Spencer

Director: Pablo Larrain

Cast: Kristen Stewart (Diana, Princess of Wales), Timothy Spall (Major Alistair Gregory), Jack Farthing (Prince Charles), Sean Harris (Chef Darren McGrady), Sally Hawkins (Maggie), Jack Nielsen (Prince William), Freddie Spry (Prince Harry), Stella Gonet (Queen Elizabeth II), Amy Manson (Anne Boleyn)

There is no more famous fairy-tale-gone-wrong in history than Prince Charles and Diana. It’s been explored in countless books, memoirs and films. It’s the meat of Netflix’s The Crown. Interest in it has been rekindled again after Prince Harry’s royal resignation. It’s a fable (also what this film claims to be, based, it claims, on “a true tragedy”) that will only become more of a legend. At its centre is Diana, a figure idealised and enshrined by a tragic early death, who had all the warmth, lovability and public humanity the more reserved Charles lacked. Diana’s romanticism has always helped her be remembered as the hero of this tragedy, with Charles the villain. You’ll see no difference in opinion here. Spencer is a fantastia on Diana that feels like it has been squeezed out of the pages of a host of sentimental pro-Diana memoirs from the likes of Paul Burrell.

Set over a three-day Christmas holiday at Sandringham, around 1991, the film follows a disastrous holiday of psychological depression, despair and isolated crisis for Diana (Kristen Stewart) as her marriage to Charles (Jack Farthing) finally, irretrievably, collapses. Over those days, Diana hides in her room, throws up meals, is treated with stony silence from the Royal family and quietly bullied by Sandringham equerry Major Gregory (Timothy Spall). Her only friends are besotted loyal dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins) and avuncular chef Darren (Sean Harris) and her only moments of happiness are with her two young sons, giving her the only taste she has of a normal life.

If there is one thing Spencer does very well, it is giving an insight into how overbearing and crushing depression can be. Diana is erratic, frequently tearful, prone to fantasies and suffers through prolonged periods of self-loathing, exhibiting as chronic vomiting after every meal and possible self-harm. Stress makes her sharp and waspish with those she doesn’t trust and almost overwhelmingly needy with those she does. Larrain visualises this with muted pallets and drained colours, showing this world in the same oppressive, depressing light as Diana see it, while Johnny Greenwood’s excellent score makes superb use of a series of unsettling chords to constantly put us ill at ease.

The downside is, the film so completely consumes the Diana-side only, that it feels like being crushed to death by a collapsing mountain of “People’s Princess” bargain-bucket memoirs. Diana is always the victim and never at fault. The film takes an idealised view of her as “one-of-us” chewed up and spat out by an uncaring system, with the Windsors as monstrous gargoyles. (A bit rich considering she’s the daughter of an Earl). Charles is cast firmly as a cold-fish and villain, heartlessly openly carrying on an affair, gifting the same pearls to Camilla as he does Diana. Where Diana is warm and playful with the children, Charles is cold and authoritative, angrily tutting at William’s failures at shooting. Where she has a natural touch with people, Charles is cold and dictatorial.

It is, basically a one-sided vision of this story. That would be fine if the film had suggested that what we are seeing is Diana’s depression-filtered perception of the world – her perception told her surroundings were like, cold, cruel and oppressive. But there is no suggestion that we are seeing this, no extenuating circumstances or slight doubts raised to suggest that there may be different interpretations of these events or that there were two people in this marriage, both in different ways at fault.

It’s something The Crown has carefully – and skilfully – done, by demonstrating these are two people never in love with each other in the first place, with no common interests and outlooks. Spencer could have delved more into helping us understand how this situation came about. It isn’t interested in doing this: as far as the film is concerned, Charles is an unfaithful bastard (Jack Farthing’s channels his Warleggen from Poldark, playing every scene with a razor-blade growl) intent on gaslighting his wife. It doesn’t seem fair.

And lord knows, I’m sorry for Diana who should never have agreed to marry a man she was unsuited to and in love with another woman from day one. There is a film to be made (eventually) about Diana which explores the fascinating puzzles in her identity. The woman who loathed the press but also was an expert manipulator of public opinion, who yearned for privacy but loved public and private devotion. Spencer doesn’t explore any of this, instead presenting a simplified, romantic vision of a woman exactly as you would expect to see from a cliched TV movie. At heart, in fact, that’s what Spencer is – a slushy made-for-TV-movie shot like an arthouse film.

That’s perhaps why its full of such ridiculous flourishes. We’ve obviously talked about the stone-cold Royals. We get cod psychology – “Where the fuck am I?” are Diana’s opening lines, hammering home for us (in case we are about to miss it) that her tortured psychology is the heart of the film. As the Royal Court arrives at Sandringham, their cars drive over the dead body of a pheasant – symbolism you see! Diana reads a book about Anne Boleyn – and sure enough she is soon literally communing with a ghost of the beheaded Queen, both of them claiming themselves as victims of a cruel king who loved someone else. Everything in the film is heavy-handed and designed to push Diana as the faultless victim and the Royals as scowling monsters.

Kirsten Stewart gives a decent impersonation of Diana – vocally she’s spot-on – but for me she struggles in the shadow of Emma Corrin’s extraordinarily transformative work in The Crown – a show that also gained a lot more emotional insight into this story than the film even begins to achieve. It’s shot with a real arthouse style, but at heart it’s a silly and shallow film that never tries to understand either Diana’s inner life or how her marriage became what it was.

Mr Turner (2014)

Mr Turner header2
Timothy Spall is superb in Mike Leigh’s outstanding portrait of Mr Turner

Director: Mike Leigh

Cast: Timothy Spall (JMW Turner), Dorothy Atkinson (Hannah Danby), Marion Bailey (Sophia Booth), Paul Jesson (William Turner Snr), Lesley Manville (Mary Somerville), Martin Savage (Benjamin Robert Haydon), Ruth Sheen (Sarah Danby), David Horovitch (Dr Price), Karl Johnson (Mr Booth), Joshua McGuire (John Ruskin), Mark Stanley (Clarkson Stanfield), Patrick Godfrey (Lord Egremont), Niall Buggy (John Carew), James Fleet (John Constable)

“This guy was a revolutionary…he was also timeless”. That’s Mike Leigh’s perspective on JMW Turner – and looking at his late work, as this film does, how can you argue? Turner’s striking use of colour, his work increasingly reflecting moods rather than cold photographic reality, was a forerunner of Impressionism. Often scorned at the time, they now stand as a body of work almost unequalled among British masters. Leigh’s film is a pictorially beautiful, but also sensitive (if meandering) coverage of Turner’s last 25 years, which (like his Topsy-Turvy) is a fascinating celebration of creativity.

To play the artist, Leigh turned to one of his most trusted regulars, Timothy Spall. Spall spent two years learning to paint – a Day-Lewis like effort that reaps dividends as the camera catches his natural, skilfully mastery of both brush and pencil. In a career-best performance, Spall captures Turner in all his scruffy energy. Spall’s Turner is an ambling, gruff eccentric who communicates frequently through grunts (Spall finds multiple variations on a series of guttural cries, from emotional collapse to satisfaction), creating a portrait of an artist who is as deeply intellectually curious as a he is curiously reserved amongst people (for all his frequent gruff bonhomie).

It’s easy to see the grunting Turner as a curmudgeon. But he is in fact far from it. This is a man of deep personal feeling – his uncontrolled sobbing on the death of his father speaks to that – who has warm and personable feelings with his fellow artists. He engages naturally – and with genuine interest – with all he speaks to here, from lords to workers. Like all great artists, he is observing, curious and wants to discover all he can about people and their world.

Again, much like Topsy-Turvy, Mr Turner is a celebration of the power of creativity. With its beautiful imagery and lingering on the environment around Turner, we get a powerful sense of the inspiration he drew from nature. It also shows painting perhaps as it never has been shown before on screen. Turner paints with an aggression that suggests the ideas are tearing themselves out of him. The canvasses are struck, pounded and wrestled into shape. Paint and spit are mixed together, rags and brushes thrown aside. The painting is fast, messy and all-consuming, hands dripping with watery paint. It’s a sense of the artist captured by the muse.

It’s made clear that we are seeing a man who never lets a moment of inspiration pass. Who wants to capture, in his canvasses, the glory and wonder he sees in light dancing across the sky. None of this is clumsily presented or cliched: instead Leigh communicates an intimate understanding of the curiosity and ambition of the artist. The film also doesn’t back away from how revolutionary art like this is – from Queen Victoria to Music Hall comics, Turner is increasingly reviled as a half-blind, mad artist who can now longer paint. Leigh also pokes playful fun at the pretension of critics – principally John Ruskin, here presented as a pompous pillock explaining painting to painters.

It also has a brilliant eye for the performance of art. Turner is clearly a showman – and it’s hard not to think that Leigh appreciates his theatricality. The film brilliantly reconstructs a famous moment at the Royal Academy where Turner recognised his own painting (Helvoetsluys) paled in its colours next to Constable’s The Opening of Waterloo Bridge. Applying a seemingly random splash of red to his painting and then walking away – while onlookers stare aghast at the ruined painting – Turner then returns and crafts (with a rag and his nail) the blob of paint into a small, eye-catching buoy. Its details like that which make the artist. That’s inspiration, and the film is crammed with moments like this.

Taking as its effective starting point the death of Turner’s beloved father (a sparkling Paul Jesson), Leigh’s film takes an observatory, non-judgemental, episodic approach to following Turner’s life. His relationship with fellow artists – from bonhomie with pals like John Carew and Clarkson Stanfield, to guarded distance with his rival Constable, the only man he feels can match him – are contrasted with Turner’s complicated private life.

In private, Leigh presents Turner as a man partly selfish, partly unwilling to confront responsibility – a damaged relationship with his mother having left him retreating from intimacy. A man who, still in his 50s, relies on his father (who he introduces to everyone as “Daddy”) to look after him (from planning his meals to mixing his paint). Turner has disowned his teenage daughters by his mistress Sarah Danby (a furiously good Ruth Sheen).

Turner’s relationship with two women become the pivot of the film. Dorothy Atkinson gives an extraordinary performance, part shuffling curiosity, part portrait of quiet long-suffering devotion. The film supposes an occasional sexual affair between this faithful housekeeper and Turner, which for Turner is clearly little more than an opportunity for release. For Hannah Danby, it’s something considerably more – and Leigh gives the final shot of the movie to her grief and loneliness after Turner’s death.

Turner finds some peace in an unofficial marriage he forms with landlady Sophia Booth (a wonderfully humane performance from Marian Bailey), a relationship he kept completely secret, setting up a home in Chelsea. It’s a relationship set-up and run on Turner’s own terms, but for a man who was a public figure (in every sense), the film suggests that this taste of the ordinary gave him a sense of safety he hadn’t felt since the loss of his father.

Any film about Turner almost has a moral obligation to be shot beautifully. From the opening minutes you’ll know you are in safe hands with Leigh’s regular camera-man Dick Pope. This is an astonishingly beautiful film, which takes Turner’s mastery of light as its inspiration for a series of strikingly gorgeous images. There is a reconstruction of the inspiration for The Fighting Temeraire which wouldn’t look amiss on your wall. The inspiration of Rain, Steam and Speed is extraordinary. At every moment the use of light and vibrant yellows echoes Turner’s dying words “The Sun is God”. One transition to Turner sketching in the Lake District captures a rocky outcrop so wonderfully that for a second I thought I was looking at a painting.

Mr Turner can be criticised as a collection of scenes – or sketches – that come together to form a film. There is no real plot, thematic or otherwise, in the film. Instead, it is designed to give us an impression of the artist, and follows the same sort of episodic, sometimes random, pattern than life itself follows. But in its intimate understanding of both creativity and the complexity of humanity, it becomes a wonderfully involving and inspiring film, beautifully shot and wonderfully directed by Leigh with a towering performance by Spall.

Topsy-Turvy (1999)

Allan Corduner and Jim Broadbent excel as the Gilbert and Sullivan’s in Mike Leigh’s superb Topsy-Turvy

Director: Mike Leigh

Cast: Jim Broadbent (WS Gilbert), Allan Corduner (Sir Arthur Sullivan), Lesley Manville (Lucy “Kitty” Gilbert), Ron Cook (Richard D’Oyly Carte), Eleanor David (Fanny Ronalds), Wendy Nottingham (Helen Lenoir), Timothy Spall (Richard Temple), Vincent Franklin (Rutland Barrington), Martin Savage (George Grossmith), Dorothy Atkinson (Jessie Bond), Shirley Henderson (Leonara Braham), Kevin McKidd (Durward Lely), Louise Gold (Rosina Brandham), Andy Serkis (John D’Auborn), Dexter Fletcher (Louis), Sam Kelly (Richard Barker)

It seems an odd-fit: Mike Leigh, auteur of working class drama, prestige period films and the music of the middle-class in Gilbert and Sullivan. But that’s to forget Gilbert and Sullivan were among the masters of theatre – and Leigh himself is a theatrical great. Topsy-Turvy, from seeing the most uncharacteristic of the director’s works, in fact perhaps an examination of the creative process Leigh has made his life. It’s a wonderfully made, superbly executed tribute to the struggles and rewards of artistic creation. A celebration of how disparate personalities come together to create something bigger than themselves. Affectionate, heartfelt, at times quietly moving, Topsy-Turvy is both one of Leigh’s most enjoyable films and one of his most tender.

It’s 1884 and the creative partnership between WS Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) is at a turning point. With their latest, Princess Ida, hardly setting the box-office alight. Sullivan feels the partnership has gone stale – and also feels under pressure to turn his attention towards more ‘serious’ composing. Gilbert refuses to change his next libretto, which Sullivan feels is effectively more of the same. Things change though when Gilbert is intrigued by an exhibition of Japanese arts and crafts, quickly creating a new libretto: The Mikado. The two geniuses, finally in unison, work together to bring the production to the stage.

Topsy-Turvy is probably Leigh’s most purely entertaining film. For anyone who has ever been involved in theatre or the arts, you’ll certainly recognise more than a few moments in this film, which is practically Leigh’s love letter to the arts. Leigh’s aim was to pay tribute to the difficulties of creativity and the demand of having to constantly refresh and reinvent your work to stay relevant and fulfilled. He succeeded: few films have so beautifully captured the struggle, pain, satisfaction and joy of creation or the strange anti-climax artistic success can bring.

Most of the second half of the film is a fascinating look at every step required to bring a production to life. From casting and contract negotiations, to costume fittings, staging and work in the rehearsal room. We get a fascinating insight into the complex backstage politics and squabbles in this small world. From actors bitching about the management (always incompetent, regardless of the situation) to the delight and playfulness of rehearsals as different opportunities are explored, it’s a wonderfully true insight into the theatre. Matched with the intricate and extraordinary detail of the reconstruction of the original production – and you have an enthralling insight into theatre. It also very appropriate for Leigh, whose organic methods of creating a film through copious rehearsal and improvisation remains very similar to theatre.

Alongside this though, the film has plenty of sympathy for the cost of creative exertion. Many of the actors lead sad and even lonely lives. Shirley Henderson’s Leonara Braham struggles with drink, Martin Savage’s George Grossmith is a drug addict (the company is too polite to mention it, but he’s clearly struggling with withdrawal at the dress rehearsal), Dorothy Atkinson’s Jessie Bond has constant pains from an unhealed ulcer. WS Gilbert and his wife lead a chaste life, he as terrified of intimacy and connection as he is of watching first nights. Sullivan juggles health problems and a long-running, regular-abortion marked, affair with Fanny Ronalds with a lingering sense of shame at not having exploited his talents more fully. These are lives that come to life when doused with creation, for all the off-stage world reveals trouble and strife.

Much of the first half is a wonderfully judged contrast between the extraverted Sullivan, keen to stretch himself but lacking the application and drive, and the repressed Gilbert, doggedly ploughing on with his (stale-sounding) original idea and unable to comprehend Sullivan’s reluctance. Leigh’s film could easily have manifested itself as a clash between two mis-matched partners. However, while the film expertly draws the parallels between the two, it also shows how much their energy comes from mutual respect. Sullivan is, after all, right that Gilbert’s first idea is a limp retread. But Gilbert’s Mikado idea is so good we don’t need a scene showing Sullivan change his mind – the simple contrast of Sullivan’s chuckles and animated striding while Gilbert reads him The Mikado’s libretto with his boredom and constant questions to the abandoned libretto speaks volumes.

Jim Broadbent is outstanding as Gilbert. He has the repressed distance, the grumpy-old-man bluntness but he mixes it with small flashes of excitement and rapture that speak volumes. His fascinated glances at the Japanese exhibition – soaking up inspiration – are beautifully judged, while his later excited larking around with a samurai sword (the very next scene sees him with a first draft) is perfect. Broadbent is both supremely funny, with several perfectly judged mon-bots, and also heartbreakingly, unknowingly lonely in his distance and fear of emotional contact. Allan Corduner makes a perfect contrast as the brash Sullivan, enjoying fame in a way Gilbert never can, but sharing with him a tortured sense of his need to fulfil his artistic potential.

The rest of the cast – a delightful mix of Leigh regulars and familiar faces – are also fabulous. Lesley Manville is wonderful as Gilbert’s wife, a gentle, eager-to-please woman who we discover has carefully buried deep regret about her emotionally repressed marriage and lack of children (Gilbert’s own difficult relationships with his parents have had a long reach on his life). Timothy Spall is wonderfully entertaining as bitchy leading actor who reacts with quiet despair when his big number is cut. Shirley Henderson’s fragility is perfect for a woman whose stage presence masks her emotional vulnerability and drink dependence. Dorothy Atkinson and Martin Savage are marvellous as two actors whose willingness to carry on under all conditions is skilfully contrasted.

Leigh’s film is also a brilliant reconstruction of time and era (rarely can a researcher be so highly billed on a film’s credits). There is a delight taken in showing how the characters react to new inventions, from Gilbert’s bellowing phone calls (“I am hanging up the phone now!”) to Sullivan’s wonder at a fountain pen (“What will they think of next?”). The design from Eve Stewart, the glorious photography of Dick Pope and the Oscar-winning costumes Lindy Hemming all are perfectly judged. The film though never becomes buried in “prestige costume drama” trappings: it’s eye for history is to acute. From alcoholism to drug addiction, broken families to the seamier streets of London, this is a film that never succumbs to easy nostalgia.

What it remains is a loving tribute to the strange families the build up around theatre. When Temple’s song is cut from the play, the chorus come together humbly but selflessly to beg for the song to be retained, because of their affection and regard for Temple. There may be disagreements, but everyone pulls together to stage the show when the time comes. Leigh’s film is full of wit, affection and a deep, loving regard for those who have chosen a life of creativity. While the film can show the cost of such a life – and the contrasting emptiness and regret away from the stage, in a life which can doesn’t always provide satisfaction – it also celebrates art in a way few other films can. One of the greatest films about the theatre ever made.

The King's Speech (2010)

Colin Firth lives in fear of his voice failing him in The King’s Speech

Director: Tom Hooper

Cast: Colin Firth (King George VI), Geoffrey Rush (Lionel Logue), Helena Bonham Carter (Queen Elizabeth), Guy Pearce (King Edward VIII), Timothy Spall (Winston Churchill), Derek Jacobi (Archbishop Cosmo Lang), Jennifer Ehle (Myrtle Logue), Michael Gambon (King George V), Freya Wilson (Princess Elizabeth), Ramona Marquez (Princess Margaret), Anthony Andrews (Stanley Baldwin), Eve Best (Wallis Simpson)

It can be very hard to imagine the fear and pressure of not being able to trust your own voice. In a world where communication is valued so highly, what terror can it bring if you can’t easily express the thoughts in your own head? It’s a fear perfectly captured in the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech. Because in a constitutional monarchy, what purpose does the King have, but to be a voice for his people? And if the King can’t speak, how can he hope to fulfil his duty? The King’s Speech uses its empathy for those struggling with a condition many find easy to mock and belittle, to create an emotionally compelling and deeply moving story that is a triumph not of overcoming an affliction, but learning how it can be managed and lived with.

In the 1930’s Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth) is second-in-line for the throne. But unlike his charismatic brother David (Guy Pearce), he’s a tense man uncomfortable in the spotlight, whose life has been blighted by his stammer. As pressure grows from his father George V (Michael Gambon) to take on a more public role, he and his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) begin the process of consulting doctors for “a cure”. But the answer might lie with a former actor turned speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), whose techniques are as much psychological as they are practical. As he and the future George VI begin to work together, a tentative friendship forms as the taciturn king begins to open up about his feelings and find real friendship for the first time in his life.

The King’s Speech delivers a well-paced, beautifully written (an Oscar winning script from David Seidler) moving story of two unlikely outsiders who find themselves as unlikely kindred spirits. While it’s easy to see its Oscar win for Best Picture as a triumph of the academy’s conservatism (and there is a case to make, with the film’s heritage style and rather conventional structure and story-telling), but that would be to overlook the emotional impact it carries. I’ve seen the film several times now, and each time I find a lump forming in my throat as it sensitively and intelligently tackles themes of depression, isolation and fear and builds towards the heart-warming achievement of a man who learns his afflictions don’t have to define him.

Hooper (who scooped the Oscar for Best Director) draws superb performances from his actors, as well as bringing his own distinctive style to the film. He had already shown with his TV miniseries John Adams that he could shoot period material with all the immediacy and energy of more modern subjects, and it’s what he does here. His unique framing – with the actor’s often at the edges of the frame, in front of strikingly character-filled surfaces – not only grounds the drama in reality, but also captures a sense of the characters own personal isolation, helped by the frequent intimately-close shots. It helps the film avoid throughout from falling into the “heritage” trap, and instead feel (for all its royal family trappings) like a personal, intimate and real story.

And the intimacy is what makes it work so well – especially since so many of the scenes are made up of two characters sitting and talking, gently but with a slowly peeling honesty, about their own thoughts and feelings. The film is hugely successful in building up our empathy for the often over-looked struggles those who stammer go through. The terror that everyday events can bring. The burden of not mastering your own voice. The anger not being able to express yourself can bring. The resentment of how others can perceive your condition as anything from an irritation to a joke to something that with just a bit of help and effort you could brush aside like a sore toe.

The film has drawn praise for its depiction of stammering – although I am reliably told by an friend with an expertise in such things that the film’s connection of stammering with psychological trauma is old-fashioned and far from proven. But it realistically shows the burdens both it, and a troubled childhood, can bring and draws attention and sympathy to the condition in the best possible way.

A lot of this is helped by Colin Firth’s outstanding, Oscar-winning, performance in the lead role. From first seeing him, his George VI is a buttoned-up man with tension pouring out of every pore, who has chosen taciturn aggression as a defensive alternative to actually having to speak. Firth’s observance of mechanics of stammering is spot on (I wonder if he consulted Jacobi, who has had more than his own experience acting a stammer!), but above all he captures the deep pain, frustration and fear it can bring to a person. Firth’s King is a man who has lived a life feeling coldly shunned by most of his family – an upbringing he is clearly working hard to correct with his sweetly loving relationship with his own children. He’s bitter and angry – not only struggling to understand and express these emotions, but allowing them to crowd out his natural warmth, kindness and generosity which emerge as he opens up to Logue, and experiences genuine friendship for the first time.

Firth sparks beautifully with Geoffrey Rush who is at his playful and eccentric best as Logue. A warm, witty and caring man with a sharp antipodean wit and playful lack of regard for authority (the film mines a lot of fun from Logue’s playful teasing of the stuffed shirt nature of monarchy and the British class system), Rush’s performance is excellent. Just as the King has been dismissed by others for his stammer, so Logue has been dismissed as an actor for his Aussie accent and is scorned by his colleagues for his unconventional methods and lack of qualifications. But, by simply listening to a man who has been lectured to his whole life, who is frightened of himself and his situations, he helps him find a voice (in, of course more ways than one). Rush’s performance is essential to the success of the film, both as the audience surrogate and also a character with his own burdens to overcome.

Backing these two is a superbly judged performance of emotional honesty, matched with that take-no-prisoners bluntness we grew to know in the Queen Mother, from Helena Bonham Carter. The rest of the cast is equally strong. Pearce offers a neat cameo as a bullyingly selfish Edward VIII. Jacobi is overbearingly pompous as the face of the establishment. Jennifer Ehle is wonderfully playful as Logue’s put-upon wife. Andrews contributes a neat little turn as Stanley Baldwin.

Historically the film telescopes events for dramatic purposes. In fact, the future King’s therapy had started almost a decade earlier. Timothy Spall’s Winston Churchill – a rather cliched performance – is converted here into an early supporter of George VI during the abdication crisis (in fact Churchill’s outspoken support for Edward VIII nearly destroyed his career). Baldwin has been partly combined with Chamberlain. Other events are simplified. But it doesn’t really matter too much. Because the emotional heart of the story is true – and the relationship between these two men, and the positive impact they had on each other’s life is what make the film so moving.

Culminating in a near real-time reconstruction of the King’s speech announcing the outbreak of the Second World War – a brilliantly handled, marvellously edited and shot sequence with masterful performances from Firth and Rush – the film is an emotional triumph. Sure, it hardly re-events the wheel, with its struggle to overcome adversity story line and tale of royalty bonding with commoner – but it hardly matters when the rewards are as rich as this. With superb performances all round, in particular from Firth, Rush and Carter and sharp direction of a very good script, this is a treat.

The Missionary (1982)

Michael Palin sets up a failed mission for change in The Missionary

Director: Richard Loncraine

Cast: Michael Palin (Reverend Charles Fortescue), Maggie Smith (Lady Isabel Ames), Trevor Howard (Lord Henry Ames), Denholm Elliott (Bishop of London), Michael Hordern (Slatterthwaite/Narrator), Graham Crowden (Reverend Fitzbanks), David Suchet (Corbett), Phoebe Nicholls (Deborah Fitzbanks), Roland Culver (Lord Fermleigh), Rosamund Greenwood (Lady Fermleigh), Timothy Spall (Parswell)

In the 1970s Michael Palin co-wrote (with Trevor Jones) a series called Ripping Yarns, affectionate half-hour spoofs of “Boys Own Adventures”, all starring Palin, told with a winning mix of affection, surreal gags and gentle humour. The Missionary is Palin expanding the concept into a full film, written by and starring the future Globe-Trotting Python. Palin plays the Reverend Charles Fortescue, who in 1902 returns from a mission in Africa (teaching the natives the date of composition of Magna Carta) to England and is asked by the Bishop of London to set up a mission in London to “save” prostitutes. Needless to say, things do not according to plan.

Palin’s script is full of some fabulous gags and a gentle, sometimes cheeky, sense of humour that gives you something truly entertaining every moment. If The Missionary does at times feel a collection of sketches and great comedic ideas and characters, rather than a fully formed filmic narrative, that matters slightly less when the jokes are as good as these. Sure, even Palin and Loncraine have said the final act of the film doesn’t completely work and largely fails to add actual narrative conclusion (it feels rather like the film required an ending, so this section was added to give it one), but it doesn’t really matter as much when the sense of fun is as strong as it is here.

Watching this on the recent re-mastered blu-ray from Indicator, this is also a beautifully made film, very well shot and framed by Loncraine with a cracking sense of pace. Visually the jokes work very well, and the push through from comic set-piece to comic set-piece that runs through the opening hour of the film is perfect. 

Palin also is perfect in the leading role, his sense of earnestness and decency, his slight air of a very-British innocence and bashfulness works in hilarious contrast to when (inexplicably to him) finds himself sexually irresistible to a host of ladies. Which sounds, when you write it, like a vanity project if ever I heard it, but never plays like it for a moment as there is a superb, slightly embarrassed, befuddled awkwardness about Palin (which I don’t think any other actor could have done as well) that makes the entire concept work an absolute treat.

It’s part of the extremely British atmosphere of the film, where sex is something deeply embarrassing and slightly shameful, something we are all far too polite to talk about or even acknowledge. Rather than the atmosphere of an end-of-the-pier show the film could have had, instead it has a very dry, rather touching attitude towards sex as something completely natural and everyday, that the repression of the English has elevated to something hugely awkward.

The only person who seems to be in touch with her true feelings and sexuality is Maggie Smith’s sexually liberal Lady Ames, a woman who knows what she wants and is determined to get it come what may. Smith is superbly funny in the role, a part she keeps just the right side of parody, making it very funny but also ring very true. This makes her a complete contrast to Fortescue’s intended (played expertly by Phoebe Nicholls) so repressed she cannot bear to be touched and obsessed with a complex filing system for storing and cross-referencing her fiancée’s letters.

All this happens within a series of sketches that are worth the price of admission themselves. Denholm Elliott has a few excellent scenes as a bullish Bishop, obsessed with sport who seems unable to speak in anything but sporting metaphors. Roland Culver plays a Lord who dies in the middle of an impassioned Fortescue’s pitch for funding, to the intense social embarrassment of his wife (Rosamund Greenwood, very funny). Best of all on the cameo front is Michael Hordern, who practically steals the entire movie as a butler utterly unable to successfully navigate around the gigantic house he works in.

Through this all rides Fortescue, a man with a barely acknowledged sexual drive, who bumbles from escapade to sexcapade with a bright-eyed innocence and determination to do the right thing, but constantly landing himself in trouble. It’s a charming, playful and very British movie and Loncraine and Palin get the tone just right. It’s perhaps a little too close to Ripping Yarns, a fabulous parody of a particular era (and type) of Britishness and British attitudes, and you feel it would be comfortable as a single 45 minute episode. But when the jokes are as cracking as they can be here – and Hordern apologetically leading Fortescue from room to room unable to work out where he is or how he can get to where they want to go, is a pleasure I could watch again and again – then you’ll cut it a lot of slack.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

Our heroes face an increasingly dark future in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Director: Mike Newell

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Ralph Fiennes (Lord Voldemort), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Brendan Gleeson (“Mad-Eye” Moody), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), Gary Oldman (Sirius Black), Miranda Richardson (Rita Skeeter), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew), Frances de la Tour (Madame Maxime), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), Robert Pattinson (Cedric Diggory), David Tennant (Barty Crouch Jnr), Jeff Rawle (Amos Diggory), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Robert Hardy (Cornelius Fudge), Roger Lloyd Pack (Barty Crouch), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Clémence Poésy (Fleur Delacour)

After Alfonso Cuarón announced he would only direct one Harry Potter film, the producers faced a stiff challenge. The third Harry Potter film had been the best so far, and elevated both the acting and design into a far more filmic, epic position than before. Could Mike Newell match this in Goblet of Fire? Sure he could.

If nothing else, Goblet of Fire is a triumph of adaptation. Used to the page-to-screen translations of the earlier films, it was expected that the film would be split into two parts. Instead Newell and screen-writer Steven Kloves turned Rowling’s huge fourth book into a tightly structured and focused film that places Harry’s emotional journey firmly at its centre, and includes only the things that support the building of that story. 

Goblet of Fire is a film of fascinating contrasts. In fact, it’s probably the lightest, most ‘teenage’ of the films, while also containing a dark final chapter and more death than we’ve had so far in the series. But this film is actually rather funny and allows its characters to focus on the challenges and stresses of growing up, with only a few flashes of danger and darkness – before they get wrapped up in the battle against Voldemort that will dominate the next few films.

So this is the film where we get crushes, where Harry and Ron struggle to get dates for the ball, where we get a sense of Hermione not only growing up – but growing in confidence. Harry develops a hopeless crush on Cho Chang – his “Willyougotoballwithme” hurried date proposal is all too familiar to most men, as is his “oh no never mind not a problem” when she (reluctantly) says no. Meanwhile, Ron struggles to understand his own hormonal feelings towards Hermione. It’s all well done and very funny. The ball itself is a highlight of teenage awkwardness, as well as genuinely feeling like a teenage party (including a sort of wizarding mosh pit). 

This teenage awkwardness carries across into Harry’s involvement in the Tri-wizard Tournament, a series of stirring set-pieces against dragons, mer-people and a wicked ever-shifting maze. The tournament offers a range of puzzles Harry needs to solve – more than enough opportunity to allow other characters to get involved. Neville Longbottom particularly moves to the fore for the first time – not only embracing dancing (hilariously nearly every boy is as embarrassed by it as you might expect) and landing a date, but also using his knowledge of plants to help Harry, and we get increased insight into his own tragic backstory. It’s great to see Matthew Lewis being able to stretch himself – and show the roots of the good young actor he’s become.

The film spends a lot of time on family roots, both tragic and happy, in particular fathers and sons. We have no fewer than four father/son match-ups in these films, and each gives us a slightly different perspective on family relationships. Mark Williams’ matey but loving Arthur Weasley gets more screen time than ever before, and Williams develops him into a protective but warm patriarch. Contrast that with the troubled coldness the Crouches show each other – and the swift speed with which Barty Crouch denounces his own son. We get a glimpse of the sort of father Harry could have had with a brief ghost appearance of Harry’s parents. The strongest father-and-son relationship we get to see is that between the Diggorys, an immeasurably proud father and a perfect son.

Mentioning Amos Diggory means we have to bring up one of the most extraordinary acting cameos in the entire series: Jeff Rawle’s work here is brilliant. Is there a more moving moment in the franchise than his uncontrollable grief when Cedric is killed? His anguished crying of “That’s my boy” will haunt many a viewer for years to come. It’s a measure of the brilliance Mike Newell had with actors, and the shrewdness of the casting throughout. Would anyone else have thought of George Dent from Drop the Dead Donkey for this King Lear-like cameo? Would anyone else have thought of Trigger as strict disciplinarian, Barty Crouch (Roger Lloyd-Pack is terrific). The film also shrewdly cast David Tennant about five minutes before he became one of the most popular actors in the country, for an excellent malevolent cameo of pride and bitterness.

The acting throughout is terrific – Mike Newell has the reputation of an actor’s director, and he really shows it here. The three leads are no longer children but teenagers, and they feel like it. Radcliffe plays Harry with increasing maturity and emotional depth, balancing with nuance and quiet confidence the light comedy of Harry’s hormonal yearnings, his fear during the tournament, and his terror and resolve during the confrontation with Voldemort. It’s quite a range he has to go through here, and this features his best performance so far.

Similarly, Grint increases his comedic range with a sullen, teenage I-don’t-want-to-admit-I’m-interested-in-girls series of exchanges. Watson demonstrates her obvious chemistry with both her co-stars, and also does a great job of showing Hermione’s growing emotional maturity and confidence. Many of the other regulars continue to do great work, with Gambon really settling into this role of Dumbledore (although his fury when Harry’s name emerges from the Tri-wizard cup seems strangely out of character). 

The new cast members as always offer plenty. Miranda Richardson delivers a lot of comic flourishes, and snappy media pot-stirring, as gossip columnist Rita Skeeter. Brendan Gleeson carries all the charisma you would expect as a maverick, perhaps even unbalanced Mad-Eyed Moody. In a further testament to the excellent casting directors here, Robert Pattinson (five minutes before his fame exploded) is very good as a suave, handsome, slightly cocky but charming Cedric Diggory.

The film though is building towards its surprising gear-change late in the story – and the introduction of Voldemort, murder and death into a film that until now has been an engaging and amusing action film and teenage comedy. Perfect casting for Voldemort was secured with Ralph Fiennes. Of course Fiennes could play Voldemort standing on his head, but his softly-spoken suaveness and patrician charm is absolutely perfect for the role. You really get a sense of ice running through his blood, and his cold cruelty and arrogance. Fiennes is pretty much iconic in this role. 

The final sequence itself is brilliantly done, a thrilling and terrifying sequence, which really hammers home the extent of Harry’s powerlessness and vulnerability – while the brutal, instant dispatching of Cedric immediately changes the ball game for the rest of the series. The scene is brilliantly shot with a series of blacks and greens for mood and offers a sensational conclusion, as well as an expertly shot duel between Harry and Voldemort that established the filmic language for all subsequent duels that were to come.

Goblet of Fire is another example after Prisoner of Azkaban of a great piece of franchise film-making. It’s not quite as stand-alone, or as perfectly dramatically formed, as the previous film – but that’s because this one ends, like none of the other films before, on a cliffhanger. For the first time, this series wasn’t offering an opponent and obstacle that could be overcome and left behind at the end of the film. Here the baddies win – and the feeling going forward is that, with the help of friends and family, we can battle the evil, but it will still be there. It’s an engaging, funny and very well-structured film, packed with decent twists, and ends with a humdinger of a scene in a film that has already had plenty of excellent moments. Harry Potter is surely one of the best franchises there is.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Harry Potter friends confront wanted killer Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Julie Christie (Madam Rosmerta), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dusley), Gary Oldman (Sirius Black), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Fiona Shaw (Petrunia Dursley), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Emma Thompson (Sybill Trewlawney), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Robert Hardy (Cornelius Fudge), Pam Ferris (Marge Dursley)

Well this is more like it. The first two films set the tone and established the universe. But Prisoner of Azkaban – filmed after a year’s break from the back-to-back filming of the first two films – is such a notable step-up in quality from the previous films, it completely stands alone as a marvellous piece of cinematic storytelling, not just as part of a franchise.

Why is this? Well I think the answer is pretty clear. After the solid, but unspectacular, direction from Chris Columbus, the reins were handed to a gifted filmmaker in Alfonso Cuarón. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban has all the visual invention and dynamism the first two films lacked. Alongside that, Cuarón tells the story with a brilliant mixture of light and dark. For the first time, the adaptation also escaped the need to dramatise everything in the book onto the screen – this film is a good 20 minutes shorter than Chamber of Secrets but immeasurably superior.

Prisoner of Azkaban looks fantastically gorgeous, and is brilliantly shot. The production and costume design has been spruced up, to give the film a sort of steam-punk 1950s look, as if the wizarding world had slightly arrested a few decades behind the rest of the world. Cuarón was also one of the first directors in the series who seemed relaxed enough to let the children act like children – so we get scenes of them mucking around in the dormitory or dressed with a teenage coolness. Hogwarts becomes a castle of shadows and gloom, in a magical, wintry whiteness and Scottish Highlands shades of greens and blues. More than any of the previous films, its a world that feels ‘real’ and lived in. It’s a style that would dominate all the remaining films: Cuarón essentially set the tone for the rest of the series to come.

It also helps that Cuarón was blessed with perhaps the strongest of Rowling’s stand-alone stories, a tight and taut thriller that reaches a surprising conclusion and features playful use of things like time travel and illicit magic. Cuarón, however, really embraces the emotional core of that story, and allows all these characters to expand in richness and depth. Harry faces real torment and anger when confronted with the story of the death of his parents, and his desperate yearning to have some sort of connection with them is a key thread that runs through almost every scene.

The film highlights the growing flirtation and connection between Ron and Hermione. Hermione herself is increasingly shown as a level-headed, empathetic young woman, who really understands the feelings of her friends. Several other characters are allowed to show depths: don’t forget this is the film where we see Snape’s first reaction when confronted with a werewolf is to put himself between it and the children. Rickman, by the way, is brilliant in this film, giving us the first hints of the deep and abiding feelings Snape held for Harry’s mother in his bitter anger at Sirius.

As always the film introduces some fantastic new characters into the mix. Gary Oldman is simply superb as Sirius Black, bringing to life his torment and rage, but most especially Blacks warmth and generosity (as well as his boyish enthusiasm). It was a major change of pace for Oldman, who has credited the film with changing his image in Hollywood away from one-note villain. Emma Thompson is very funny as (possibly) delusional divination teacher Sybil Trelawney. David Thewlis though waltzes off with the movie as a sad-eyed Remus Lupin, a man who clearly has known great losses. Thewlis plays Lupin with a caring, scruffy charm, an ideal teacher and mentor – generous but also firm when needed. It’s impossible not to end the film caring deeply for him. He’s terrific – it’s a real shame he never got another real showpiece scene in the rest of the franchise.

This is also our first introduction to Michael Gambon as Dumbledore – a replacement for the late Richard Harris. Gambon plays the part with a curious twinkly cheekiness, and a greater physical robustness, along with a faint Irish twang which feels like a homage to Harris. It’s a slightly uncertain start, but Gambon’s unusual, slightly-faded-hippie take on the part stands out from Harris’ austere wise-man very nicely. His lightness makes the moments of power all the more awe-inspiring. It also rather fits in with the tone of Cuarón’s slightly off-beat style.

Cuarón has a real eye for the offbeat gag – from a cleaner almost being blown away by a monster’s howl in the Leaky Cauldron, to the kids eating animal sweets in their dormitory, to Dumbledore’s off-camera delay tactics with Fudge (“Well it is a very long name minister” he says when asked to sign something), there are many delightful sight and sound gags throughout the film to make it a joy to discover. His balance of this with the heart of the story is brilliant: the inflation of Pam Ferris’ vile Aunt Marge is both brilliantly funny, but also clearly motivated by the revolting things she openly says to Harry about his parents. It’s a great balance the film pulls off time and time again.

The film is wonderfully structured and beautifully paced. It’s got a very clear five act structure, and thematic thread running through the whole film of grief and needing friends to help cope with this. The parts of the book that don’t contribute to this have been skilfully trimmed down. Cuarón then brilliantly interweaves set-piece moments, many of them introduced with an off-the-wall inventiveness, such as the umbrella dancing in the wind before the storm-swept Quiddich match (is there any health and safety in this school at all by the way?).

By the time you hit the final sequences, thanks to the film’s structure, you’ve no doubt about the revolting dangers of the Dementors. These spectral creatures are returned to again and again by Cuarón’s careful editing, as we see them drifting around the borders of Hogwarts, killing flowers and freezing lakes by their very presence. These terrifying creatures are the creepy stuff of nightmares – and Cuarón doesn’t flinch from this. It also makes Harry’s successful conjuring of a Patronus at the film’s conclusion a stirring and triumphant moment, a suitable triumphal ending to the film.

Cuarón’s direction of this film re-set the table for the entire franchise. Both Mike Newell and David Yates would follow in his footsteps, and present the world as Cuarón imagined it: dark blacks, and muted primary colours, as much a world of creepy, unsettling threat and danger, as it was of delight and wonder. From this point on the films would start to stand on their own feet, focusing on exploring the themes and emotions of Rowling’s story, rather than covering every scene. Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of the Harry Potter films and the most important landmark in the series. It’s not just a great Harry Potter film, or a great fantasy film or kids’ film. It’s a great film.

The Last Samurai (2003)

Ken Watanabe and Tom Cruise. I’ll leave you to guess which one turns out to be The Last Samurai…

Director: Edward Zwick

Cast: Tom Cruise (Nathan Algren), Ken Watanabe (Moritsugo Katsumoto), Timothy Spall (Simon Graham), Tony Goldwyn (Colonel Bagley), Billy Connolly (Zebulon Gant), Hiroyuki Sanada (Ujio), Shin Koyamada (Nobutada), Masato Harada (Omura), Shichinosuke Nakamura (Emperor Meiji), Koyuki (Taka), Seizo Fukumoto (Silent Samurai)

Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a legendary but traumatised veteran of the US’s war against the Native Americans. In 1877 he is recruited by the Japanese government to train their new modern army. Japan is a country split between the old and the new, with the samurai leading a revolt against modernisation. After the army is defeated by the samurai, Algren is taken captive. He quickly finds himself enamoured with Samurai culture, not least because of the inspiring charisma and nobility of the samurai leader Lord Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe).

The white man in the noble warrior culture: it’s a narrative structure that never fails. The Last Samurai fits very neatly into a familiar pattern: a story about an exotic non-Western culture, with a white Western character placed at the forefront. Of course the samurai culture is portrayed with a romantic longing, with the charms of its honourable life impossible to resist for our hero, all too familiar with the corruption of our culture. It’s been a pretty standard structure ever since Dances with Wolves. And of course, the white man is left standing as the only witness to the brave sacrifices of the noble-savages-who–weren’t-as-savage-as-we-first-thought.

What this structure does is minimise the entire point of the story. This is supposedly a story about a major shift in Japanese culture – from the old feudal world of the samurai to a more mechanised, modern society. In this cultural shift, some people got left behind, unable to let go of the old ways. It’s a tragedy for that old way of life, but this film muddies that water with its redemption structure for Algren. So by the end of the film, we may be looking at the destruction of the samurai culture and the deaths of most of the characters we’ve spent the film (sort of) getting to know – but hey at least the American lead has found peace and contentment.

So the nominal “last samurai” himself, Katsumoto, becomes a supporting character in his own film, a spirit animal to guide Algren towards a better understanding of himself and of the world. Katsumoto is presented romantically, a noble, kindly, principled man who mixes a love of poetry and flowers and a wry wit with a fanatical ruthlessness in battle. It’s the quintessential “noble savage” of Hollywood lore. All of which is not a criticism of Ken Watanabe, who is excellent – a guy whom you find yourself falling in love with, totally believable as the sort of man others would follow to the death. It’s a standard Hollywood cliché, albeit one presented with commitment.

Having said all that, the film does treat Japanese culture with an immense respect, even if it does so through a romantic lens. It’s also pretty unflinching at the more brutal side of the samurai culture – its expectations of suicide on failure, its pride and unwillingness to compromise. Of course, these are also later embraced as part of its nobility, but at least they are there. The film does also touch on some points of disagreement between East and West – Algren has nothing but contempt for Custer’s ego-driven suicidal last stand, while Katsumoto finds the story enchantingly inspired – but doesn’t allow these to get in the way of the romance. And by the end of the film, there is certainly no criticism for the suicidal charge Algren and Katsumoto lead the samurai into.

The modernising Japanese forces are given far less understanding. Of course, historically, if Japan wished to engage with the modern world and trade, it needed to undergo a certain level of progression from its feudal background. Historically this shift may have been too drastic – a rejection of the past rather than a development – but needless to say, here the modernising Japanese characters are uniformly presented as cowardly, selfish and greedy. Not to be outdone, it also introduces a racist American colonel, with a career of brutal campaigns against Native Americans, to serve as Algren’s nemesis (and to provide a small, audience-pleasing victory when he is killed off in the final battle).

I’m being very hard on The Last Samurai, which, within the confines of the Hollywood predictability it inhabits, is in fact a fairly decent film. Cruise is rather good as Algren, even if his drunken self-loathing is sometimes over played. He’s perhaps not completely convincing as a bitter ex-soldier, but he nails the depression and lost-soul nature of Algren. The Japanese actors are all excellent – there is barely a weak link in the cast, with Koyuki particularly soulful as the widow of a man killed by Algren.

The film is brilliantly shot by John Toll and looks wonderful, and even if it is slightly predictable and directed with a mundane lack of imagination (Edward Zwick is a competent but uninspired director and he creates an epic here in that image) it’s still fine and entertaining viewing. Cruise and especially Watanabe create heroes you care for. The final battle sequence does move, with its final triumph of mechanisation over blind courage. Zwick does have an eye for capturing the warmth and simplicity of the samurai village life, and he and screenwriter John Logan deserve a lot of credit for their research, respect and understanding of Japanese culture (the film was well received in Japan). The Last Samuraiis a clichéd and slightly flawed epic, but it has a nobility and honesty to it. With some excellent performances, it is more than entertaining enough.