Welcome to Movie Musings!

Films can entertain, inspire, amuse and inform. They can also frustrate, annoy and upset. Sometimes they can be just plain awful. But we love them – after all we spent millions of hours a year watching them. It’s an art form and an entertainment industry, and this blog celebrates the best (and the worst) of what cinema has given us, with indepth and personal reviews of over a thousand films (and counting).

Read the latest reviews below – or browse the review index to pick a film to read about!

  • Nomadland (2020)

    Poetic and surprisingly moving, this Best Picture winner is light on plot but deep on meaning

    Director: Chloé Zhao

    Cast: Frances McDormand (Fern), David Strathairn (Dave), Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells, Peter Spears, Derek Endres

    We all have ideas about what life should look like in the 21st century. Settled job, dream home, the rooted life. It’s what we are expected to be working towards – but it’s not for everyone. Nomadland, Chloé Zhao’s Malick-influenced road movie explores the lives of those who decide to live off that beaten track. The modern nomad, who chooses flexibility to move their home from place to place and don’t want to be tied down by bricks-and-mortar. It makes for a meditative, soulfully poetic film with a quietly mesmeric power.

    Fern (Frances McDormand) is recently widowed, childless and has lost her job after the gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada closes. But, far from down-hearted, Fern is determined to lead a new life without the fixed commitments of her old one. She sells most of her possessions, kits out a van as a travel home and begins to drive across the country, taking seasonal jobs as and where she stops. She finds herself part of a warm and supportive community of nomads, who help to learn how to flourish in this unconventional home life.          

    Nomadland winning Best Picture is as close as the Oscars have come to giving an award to Terence Malick. It’s hard not to feel his influence over the camera’s languid worship of the beauty of the Badlands, or its characters quiet searching for higher in life, via a communing with nature. Zhao’s film is a very effective and surprisingly moving character study, with only the smallest smidgen of a plot, but full of feeling. Radiantly shot by Joshua James Richards, it finds an orange-tinged beauty in a dawn and dusk and tiny moments of joy in rain falling in your face. All contrasted with the dull oppressiveness of buildings, those four walls shutting out nature.

    Zhao’s film goes a long way in challenging neat assumptions we might have about this lifestyle. “I’m not homeless I’m houseless” Fern states and she politely – but firmly – turns down well-meaning offers of charity. The decision to move from place-to-place is not one enforced by poverty or failure. Instead, this is a rich, vibrant, supportive community that looks out for each other and share a legitimate (and refreshing) view of the world. Who says you need to spend your life chasing the dollar and building up a debt to have a fixed slice of real-estate you can sort of call your own?

    This is particularly true in our post-recession world. Nomadland starts with the final collapse of an industrial community, now a ghost town. Many of the nomads find seasonal work that is often manual and low-skilled. Fern’s first job (of many) is working at an Amazon dispatch location, where jolly team leaders burst with enthusiasm met with smiling indifference by the (often older) staff. Fern’s travel is shaped around moving to key locations for seasonal work – Amazon, a campsite, a short-order chef job, beet processing… The economic situation is poor, but this is a way of playing the system to get a higher level of freedom, without debt or financial pressures.

    It’s a key subject of a talk given to fellow nomads by Bob Wells, an influential advocate of the nomad life-style (one of any people playing versions of themselves). It’s part of a series of events at a nomad event – a sort of convention – where people gather to share experiences, advise and life-hacks. Ever needed to know how to change a tyre or what size bucket you should use for your built-in toilet? Wonder no more! On the road people come together in a way they never would in more regular life. With everything transient and nothing fixed, friendships and connections are more intense, constantly in that first glow of excitement.

    That’s the pay-off of choosing this lifestyle. Everything is transient. Close friendships form, but you might not see the other person for months at a time. While phones help you to keep in touch, day-to-day you see completely different people from place-to-place. It will never be completely clear where you might be to your family. However, the short-lived intensity of connections can lead to a closeness and intimacy that might otherwise take months – a friend of Fern’s confides she has terminal cancer but regrets nothing, with a warmth and trust that would normally takes years to form not weeks.

    It’s implied as well that the more short-lived intensity of friendships fits more with what the slightly taciturn and guarded Fern wants from life. Frances McDormand makes her friendly, ready with a smile, good company – but she is always slightly reserved and guarded. She will give sympathetic ears and invite confidences. But she is also a woman determined to live by her own rule. Having lived most of her life in one place in a happy marriage, a conversation with her sister (who bails her out with a loan to repair her van) reveals she was always prone to not look back when a decision was made. It’s the same with deciding to live on the road as moving to Empire – Fern knows her own heart and mind, and will fully commit to that.

    This is despite temptations, the main one she faces being David Strathairn’s (the only other professional actor in the film) Dave, a fellow nomad who makes no secret of his romantic interest in her. Sweetly played by Strathairn, Dave pursues Fern and dangles the possibility of a more fixed and traditional life. They are close, but Fern has lived that life of marriage and rejected already the idea of a family. And, as McDormand makes clear in her soulful eyes, if that life was ever on the cards, it would have been with her husband not this new man, nice as he is.

    Nomadland, like Fern, can see the dangers and problems. A van breaking down in the middle of nowhere is a major danger, a broken plate a potential disaster – Fern painstakingly reassembles it, not wishing to spend the money to replace it. Low temperatures and bad weather can make it uncomfortable – although she (smilingly) rejects an offer from a garage owner to sleep inside. But it also understands living this lifestyle is a legitimate choice, filled with rich possibilities. You only need to see Fern joyfully travel to the coast or get wrapped up in the embrace of the vibrant community she finds on the road to see that you could do immeasurably worse with your life.

    Zhao’s film has a documentary realism to it, that comes from its deep immersion in real nomad communities. It makes copious use of real nomads playing versions of themselves, giving a rich feeling of authenticity to every moment. It also means we gain a real understanding of the idea that goodbyes are never final in this world, that there is always the prospect of seeing someone again “down the road”. The film’s poetic empathy, its warmth and the vibrant humanity of its characters makes it film that creeps up on you and has a surprising, but profound, power.

  • Empire of Light (2022)

    Mendes passion project is strangely free of passion in a film that misses the targets it aims for

    Director: Sam Mendes

    Cast: Olivia Colman (Hilary Small), Micheal Ward (Stephen Murray), Tom Brooke (Neil), Toby Jones (Norman), Colin Firth (Donald Ellis), Tanya Moodie (Delia), Hannah Onslow (Janine), Crystal Clarke (Ruby), Monica Dolan (Rosemary Bates), Sara Stewart (Brenda Ellis)

    In 1981, Hilary Small (Oliva Colman) is the duty manager of grand, old-fashioned, Margate sea-front cinema The Empire. A quiet, lonely spinster who’s never seen any of the cinema’s movies, she carefully performs her duties at work which include servicing the sexual needs of owner Mr Ellis (Colin Firth). However, her life changes when young Black man Stephen Murray (Micheal Ward) starts as an usher. The two strike up a friendship that becomes a relationship – but runs into conflict as Stephen struggles with growing racism and Hilary suffers a relapse into schizophrenia.

    Empire of Light has been described as personal passion project by Sam Mendes. Bizarrely it feels like a film which all passion has been strained out of. It’s a functional and safe film, scripted with little inspiration and given life largely by the charisma of its two leads.

    Empire of Light partially frames itself as a love-letter to cinema-going and film. Strangely it hardly engages with either of these. In fact, it could (with minor script changes) be set just as easily in a department store, petrol station or bingo hall. This is a film where no-one talks about cinema, watches a film or even seems interested. Toby Jones’ projectionist explains the mechanics of his trade in what feels like a carefully scripted explanation of the workings of a machine the writer knows nothing about. For all the beauty of Roger Deakins’ photography, there is no moment of magic that you might expect from a director who claims to be enamoured with the medium.

    Hilary finally decides to watch a film for the first time: “pick any one you like” she tells Jones. He tees up Being There – a film I’m wondering if Mendes has seen. For starters, would I show a film about mental health featuring a racist cartoon in the middle to a woman struggling with her own mental health who has just watched a close friend being beaten up by the National Front? You’re left feeling Norman simply teed up whatever film was in the machine. But then, as he says, he doesn’t really watch the films anyway. Afterwards Hilary and Stephen chat about Peter Sellers – but never once mention he has only just died.

    Empire of Light fails at most other things it attempts to do. Its heart is in the coming-of-age, second-chance-at-life romance at its centre. There is fine chemistry between Colman and Ward, and their bashful coming together works as a meeting of two spiritually similar people who feel life is passing them by. Their unspoken courtship early on – rescuing a wounded pigeon together in the abandoned upper-storey of the Empire or watching the New Years fireworks on the roof – has a pleasant innocence. But fundamentally, these characters feel ill-defined and go through personal crises that feel pat and under-developed.

    Colman gives her all as Hilary – although this sort of dumpy, frumpy, tragic, timid woman is becoming a little too much of a calling card – but this is a thin character. We slowly realise Hilary is a woman struggling with mental health – making her sexual exploitation by Firth’s smug, sleazy, manager even more unpleasant. She carefully goes about her work, stares down at the ground and wouldn’t even dream of intruding on the cinema-goer by actually watching the film. Colman masters the little touches of glee she gets at the presence of Stephen, Hilary’s simultaneous enjoyment and bashfulness about what she assumes is a hopeless crush.

    Where the film fails though is in finding any depth in Hilary’s struggles with schizophrenia. Colman’s character is inspired, in many ways, by Mendes’ own mother. The film aims for a sympathetic presentation of mental health, which it manages but without providing any insight. While many aspects of mental health were not discussed at the time, a film made today really should have more to say than Empire of Light musters.  Instead, Hilary’s condition feels like a dramatic shorthand. For a passion project that’s not good enough – the film even falls back on the age-old “stops taking her meds” plotline. For all the gusto and commitment Colman brings to Hilary’s mental collapse – a furious destruction of a sandcastle, or ranting, drunk, in an apartment where the walls are strewn with self-penned graffiti – it never feels insightful enough.

    It’s sadly the same with Micheal Ward’s Stephen. For all Ward is hugely charming as this saintly young man – and for all he expertly suggests Stephen’s anger at the growing tide of racism in Britain – the issues he deals with feel like window-dressing. The most interesting moment is his confrontation with an angry, racist customer who is appeased by Hilary rather than challenged – much to Stephen’s justified fury. But name-checking Brixton and New Cross and saying “it’s getting worse” doesn’t really feel like getting to grips with the dilemmas he, and young men like him, were facing. Particularly when Stephen responds to a deadly beating with something approaching a shrug of the shoulders. You can’t argue with Mendes’ genuine feelings, but there is never enough depth.

    Instead, these major social issues are benched by the film’s end, making them feel like discussion points to make Hilary feel better about her life and for Stephen to resolve to move on with his. It has less to say about these issues than an episode of Call the Midwife. Just as it has nothing to say about the magic of cinema going, turning it into a retro back-drop of posters and old sweeties. Far from making a case for cinema, it makes the building as irrelevant as some worry it is becoming today.

  • Cleopatra (1963)

    The biggest epic of them all – and one of the most infamous – is a mess but at times entertaining

    Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz

    Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra), Richard Burton (Mark Antony), Rex Harrison (Julius Caesar), Roddy McDowell (Octavian), Pamela Brown (High Priestess), George Cole (Flavius), Hume Cronyn (Sosigenes), Cesare Danova (Apollodorus), Kenneth Haigh (Brutus), Andrew Keir (Agrippa), Martin Landau (Rufio), Robert Stephens (Germanicus), Francesca Annis (Eiras), Isabelle Cooley (Charmian), Jacqui Chan (Lotos), Andrew Faulds (Canidius)

    One of the most legendary epics of all time – for all the wrong reasons. Cleopatra is the mega-budget extravaganza that nearly sunk a studio, years in its shambolic, crisis-hit making that turned its stars into a celebrity brand that changed their lives forever. Painfully long, it’s a rambling, confused film that feels like something that was filmed before anyone had the faintest idea what the story they were trying to tell was. Then, just when you consider giving up on it, it will throw in a striking scene or intelligent performance and you’ll sit up and be entertained. Just never quite enough.

    In its four hours it covers eighteen years. Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) arrives in Egypt after victory over his rival Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus. There he quickly becomes enamoured with Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor), the cunning, intelligent witty sister of bratty Pharoah Ptolemy XIII (Richard O‘Sullivan). Caesar takes Cleopatra’s side in the civil war for the Egyptian throne and takes her as a second wife, having a son (and potential heir) with her. Made dictator for life, he and Cleopatra return to Rome – where is assassinated. A friendless Cleopatra finds herself drawn towards Caesar’s deputy Mark Antony (Richard Burton), the two of them starting a passionate affair that will tear the Roman world apart and lead them into a civil war against Caesar’s politically astute but coldly realpolitik nephew (and official heir) Octavian (Roddy McDowell).

    Cleopatra’s shoot – and the hullabaloo of press interest around it – is almost more famous (and perhaps more interesting) than the film itself. After a long gestation, filming started in London under the direction of veteran Rouben Mamoulian, with Taylor on board (for a bank-busting fee) with Peter Finch as Caesar and Stephen Boyd as Antony. Then it all fell apart. Taylor caught meningitis in the cold conditions, nearly died and the film nearly collapsed. The script was rewritten (again), Mamoulian, Finch and Boyd all left. Joseph L Mankiewicz came on board to write and direct, London filming (and all the sets) was junked and production moved to Rome. This all took a year.

    In Rome, Rex Harrison and Richard Burton joined the cast as shooting began again practically from scratch. The planning however had been so laborious that Mankiewicz hadn’t been able to finish the script. So, instead, he decided to start shooting what he had and write the rest as he went. Sets were built for unwritten scenes and money continued to pour down the drain. This also meant a huge amount of hanging around for all concerned, spare time Burton and Taylor used to start a tabloid-filling affair which became the talk of the world. After nearly two years of filming, the studio ended up with millions of feet of film, a feud over whether to release two films or one long one and no-one with any real idea why they had made the film in the first place.

    And God you can tell watching it. Cleopatra is an over-extended, rather unfocused mess that feels like the compromise product it is. What is this film trying to say? No one seems to know, least of all Mankiewicz. Is this an elegy to the loss of the Roman republic? Hardly when Caesar is presented as sympathetically as he is. Was the film looking to explore Antony and Cleopatra as tragic lovers or deluded would-be emperor builders? God alone knows. Is Cleopatra a temptress or a genius, a chancer or a political genius? No idea. Her infinite variety here is basically to be whatever the scene requires at the time, all wrapped up in Taylor’s effortless charisma.

    Mankiewicz’s script – presumably written and then filmed almost immediately in many cases – falls back onto what he was comfortable with. Dialogue scenes are frequently over-written and over-long, so intricately constructed it was impossible to cut them down and still have them make sense.  The man who rose to the height of his profession directing witty conversation pieces in rooms, tried to do the same with his three leads in these massive sets. Acres of screen time stretch out as combinations of three leads spout mountains of dialogue at each other, often to very little dramatic impact. To keep the pace up, the film is frequently forced to take huge time-jumps.

    Empires rise and fall in the gaps between scenes, armies assemble and are defeated in the blink of an eye. At one point Caesar and Cleopatra find a murdered character in the garden – the impact rather lost on the audience as this character is never mentioned before or after this. Years fly by and characters swiftly report off-screen events of momentous import, from Antony’s marriage and peace with Octavian to Caesar’s victory over Ptolomy. Caesar himself is murdered – Kenneth Haigh leads a series of stalwart British character actors in glorified cameos – in a silent ‘vision’ witnessed by Cleopatra, that cuts to Antony’s briefly shouting (unheard) his funeral oration (this at least means we don’t need to hear cod-Shakespearean dialogue in either scene).

    The other thing that couldn’t be cut was the film’s epic scale. Cleopatra’s entrance to Rome plays out nearly in real time, a never-ending procession of flights of fancy parading into the capital capped with Taylor’s cheeky grin at the end of it at Cleopatra’s panache. The battle of Actium looks impressive – with its boat clashes, flaming ships and colliding vessels – so much so that you almost regret we don’t get to see more of Pharsalus and Philippi than their aftermaths. The huge sets are striking, as are the legion of costumes Taylor has to change into virtually from scene to scene.

    Of course, what people were – and always are – interested in is how much the fire off-stage between Burton and Taylor made it to the screen. I’ve honestly always felt, not much. Perhaps by this point both actors were too fed up and punch-drunk from the never-ending project. Perhaps they simply didn’t have any interest in the film. Burton falls back on grandstanding – he confessed he felt he only learned how to act on film from watching Taylor. Taylor is undeniably modern in every frame, but she somehow manages to hold a rather loosely defined character together, so much so that you forget she’s fundamentally miscast.

    Of the leads Rex Harrison emerges best as an avuncular Caesar whose well-spoken wit hides an icy interior overflowing with ruthlessness and ambition. The film loses something when he departs just before the half-way mark. (It’s a mark, by the way, of the film’s confused structure that Burton only appears an hour into the film – and that for an inconsequential “plot update” chat with Caesar’s wife Calpurnia). There are decent turns from Cronyn as Cleopatra’ advisor, Pamela Brown as a Priestess, Andrew Faulds as a gruff Agrippa and even George Cole as Caesar’s trusted, mute servant. Best in show is probably Roddy McDowell’s ice cold Octavian – like a version of Harrison’s Caesar with all charm removed – who would have certainly been an Oscar nominated if the studio hadn’t screwed up his nomination papers.

    Cleopatra still ended up with multiple Oscar nominations – even some wins – but took years to make back the money blown on it. At four hours, it bites off way more than it can chew and vey rarely comes together into a coherent shape. Scenes alternate between too short and way too long and three leads with very different acting styles struggle to make the best of it. You feel watching it actually sorry for Mankiewicz: it’s not really his fault, the scale of this thing would have sunk any director. Cleopatra has flashes of enjoyment, but much of it drags for the viewer as much as it did for those making it.

  • Mulholland Dr (2001)

    Surrealist, dream-like images fill a film that’s wilfully complex, perplexing and probably Lynch’s masterpiece

    Director: David Lynch

    Cast: Naomi Watts (Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn), Laura Harring (Rita/Camilla Rhodes), Justin Theroux (Adam Kesher), Ann Miller (Coco), Mark Pellegrino (Joe), Patrick Fischler (Dan), Michael Cooke (Herb), Dan Hedaya (Vincenzo Castigliane), Angelo Badalamenti (Luigi Castigliane), Michael J Anderson (Mr Roque), Monty Montgomery (The Cowboy), Lee Grant (Louise Bonner), James Karen (Wally Brown), Chad Everett (Jimmy Katz), Melissa George (Camilla Rhodes), Billy Ray Cyrus (Gene), Lori Heuring (Lorainne Kesher)

    Spoilers: I’ll be discussing in detail the plot (if you can call it that) including its final act reveals which are crucial for understanding the film. So watch it first!

    Where do you begin? Mulholland Drive feels like the culmination of Lynch’s work, a perfect boiling down of Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, Wild at Heart and Blue Velvet into a surrealistic meditation on Hollywood, wish-fulfilment, dreams and reality. It’s both wilfully inaccessible and surprisingly clear, both coldly cruel and achingly tender, full of hope and devoid of happiness. It’s tough, cryptic, engrossing viewing and unpeels like an onion (and likely to have the same effect on you as that vegetable). Every scene may mean everything or nothing, but there is not a moment of it that isn’t darkly, thrillingly engrossing.

    It starts with a car crash on Mulholland Drive – but not before a stream of seemingly disconnected images that only later reveal their importance, including a women on a bed and a dizzying array of disconnected jittybug dancers drifting across the screen like paper cut-outs before a purple background. The car crash involves a mysterious woman ‘Rita’ (Laura Harring) who narrowly escapes being murdered but is left with amnesia. She stumbles to the house of Betty (Naomi Watts), a newly arrived girl in Hollywood, eager to become an actress. With only a bag of money and a mysterious blue key to go on, Rita and Betty search to find out who Rita is. Meanwhile, director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) finds his film (which Betty wants to audition for) being taken over by gangsters. Did I also mention an incompetent-but-brutal hitman, a supernaturally omniscient albino cowboy and a monstrous goblin-like hobo who lives behind a diner and can kill on sight?

    Mulholland Drive grew out of Lynch’s plans for a new Twin Peaks style TV series. He shot a pilot, the footage from which takes up much of the first two thirds. Like Twin Peaks it was full of mysterious alleyways to be explored: it’s amnesiac lead, mysterious money and blue key, shadowy gangsters (even led by Twin Peaks veteran Michael J Anderson, here in a Red Room style hide-away, his head attached to a prosthetic body), creepy supernatural nightmare elements. Alas, the executives hated it (it wasn’t exactly Desperate Housewives), but French investors stepped in to fund Lynch turning it into a surrealist movie, with an additional half an hour of footage to an ending (of a sort).

    A sort of ending is what we get. Mulholland Drive is a famously confusing, impenetrable film. But to me it seems clear. Lynch’s solution was to turn all the pilot footage into a bizarre and terrible dream – and latch on an ending set in the ‘real world’ which re-presents characters, events and throwaway moments in surprising new lights, leading us to radically reinterpret everything. Effectively, the first two-thirds are the guilt-ridden nightmare of Diane (Watts again), a failed actress in Hollywood who paid for a hit on a star actress Camilla (Harring again) who she believes seduced and spurned her. In her dream, Diane reimagines both herself and Camilla exactly as she wishes they were: herself unspoilt by Hollywood with preternatural talent, Camilla as an amnesiac utterly reliant on her.

    What we have here is dreams as wish fulfilment: and what city is more about that, than Hollywood? Mulholland Drive plays as the dark underbelly of Sunset Boulevard (pretty dark and bitter already!). Lynch’s Hollywood is a vicious, heartless, bloody place, where cruelty and death are commonplace. In ‘the dream’ the gangsters – terrifying cameos from Hedaya and composer Badalamenti, the latter dribbling inadequate coffee from his mouth during a meeting in a grotesque power play – call the shots. Reality might be worse. This heartless factory of dreams chews up and spits out innocents like Diane, turning her from naïve and optimistic into  bitter, twisted shell, emotionally maladjusted, locked in her apartment tearily in thrall to her worst instincts.

    It makes sense in a way that the film is dominated (probably) by a dream. Hollywood is the town of stories, and it’s perversely logical that the unreality should feel so detailed, engrossing and narratively compelling while what is (probably) reality is fragmented, mundane and laced with cruelty. To the people of films, stories are richer and more freeing than anything that happens in real life and infinitely more comforting.

    Comfort is what our dreamer wants. Naomi Watt’s Betty seems like a cliché of a small-town girl, swept up in the big city. Full of aw-shucks charm, the eagle-eyed will spot little moments of strength that feel out of character. There are micro-flashes of anger and she’s determined to break into a mysterious, abandoned house to find a clue when Rita runs. She’s a gifted actress, turning a mundane script in an audition (a script she and Rita laugh at) into a simmering performance of sexual control that stuns the room. But this is a multi-layed performance, just one facet of a whole.

    Because Betty’s talent is recognised in the way her ‘real-world’ counterpart Diane – stuck in small supporting roles, gifts from Camilla – never is. There are touches of this in that audition: the director is the least involved and speaks only in vague bullshit. Its not just that talent recognition: in the dream she can turn her lover Camilla, an independent and (perhaps) selfish figure, into someone so dependent on her that she literally doesn’t even know who she is. She even turns the man Camilla leaves her for, into a deluded, humiliated cuckold in thrall to gangsters.

    Lynch’s crafting of this dream is flawless. He can mine tension from even the smallest moments. Innocuous events – two men sitting in a diner, a kind old couple in a cab, a business meeting, a singing audition – drip with menace and unknown horror. His camera frequently, almost imperceptibly weaves, as if held floating in space. Logic jumps and sudden transitions abound. Lights flicker and time never obeys rules. He is also a master of black humour: a hit-job gone wrong (with bodies and a vacuum cleaner joining the carnage) is hilarious, as is Kesher’s unexpected arrival home to find his wife in bed with a muscular pool cleaner.

    Mulholland Drive is also a sensitive and highly emotional romance story between two lost souls. Betty, naïve and helpful and Rita, who clings with gratitude and adoration to the woman who helps her. Moments of sexual tenderness between these two are shot with erotic beauty: contrasted sharply with the more sordid, aggressive couplings between them in ‘reality’.

    But these mix with moments of chilling, unspeakable horror. The hideous goblin living behind a diner, an embodiment of all that is cruel, evil and twisted, later clutching a box the releases the furies themselves seem to leap from. Is this a dark expression of the dreamer’s own guilt (which seems to be transferred to “Dan” a man we see literally dying of fright in a diner that becomes crucial later)? The Cowboy, who may or may not be of this world, glanced at two dreadful moments (just as he promises) seems to guides the dream. And the Silencio club, a theatre of the bizarre, disturbing auditory and visual twists and turns that serves as the gateway between dream and reality – something Betty subconsciously knows, vibrating in terror in her seat, knowing this fantasy she has crafted is under siege from dark elements of the truth demanding she acknowledge them.

    Mulholland Drive deconstructs itself at every turn, aided by Lynch’s wonderful, hypnotic surrealistic touches. What’s beautiful about it, perhaps, is it leaves it very much up to you. For me, the desire for dreams to be fulfilled is crucial. It’s all captured in Watts and Harring’s multi-layered performances, their versions of the same women contrasting and complementing each other. Lynch allows their personalities to blur both in character and in visuals (Rita ends up in a matching wig in touches of Vertigo while the film’s blurring of two personalities echoes Bergman’s Persona, including a homage via a shot where both faces seem to merge into one).

    An intense, fascinating dream-like exploration of several classic Lynchian themes, Mulholland Drive is his finest, most rewarding film. One which, whatever interpretation you place on its events, grips and challenges you at every moment, full of scenes which spark a mixture of imagination, horror and intrigue. Powered by two wonderful performances at its lead, both with just the right mix of reality and fantasy about them, it’s an extraordinary film.

  • Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

    Cameron’s film makes a huge splash despite its soggy plotted, flooded run-time

    Director: James Cameron

    Cast: Sam Worthington (Jake Sully), Zoe Saldaña (Neytiri), Sigourney Weaver (Kiri Sully), Stephen Lang (Colonel Miles Quaritch), Kate Winslet (Ronal), Cliff Curtis (Tonowari), Jamie Flatters (Neteyam Sully), Britain Dalton (Lo’ak Sully), Timothy Jo-Li Bliss (Tuk Sully), Jack Champion (Spider), Bailey Bass (Reya), Filip Geljo (Aonung), Duane Evans Jr (Rotxo), Edie Falco (General Frances Ardmore), Brendan Cowell (Captain Scoresby), Jermaine Clement (Dr Ian Garvin)

    After thirteen years it finally arrived. The sequel to a film that seemed to leave no cultural impact, Avatar. People were convinced it would flop. But they say that about all Cameron films. And, if anyone should have learned anything from Terminator 2, Titanic and Avatar it was don’t bet against Cameron. If Avatar 2’s purpose was to make an awful lot of money, it has succeeded in every level. If its purpose was to make a strong and entertaining film… I’m not so sure.

    About the same amount of time has passed on Pandora and Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have raised a family of four children, including Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) born from the avatar of their friend Grace. They have also raised Quaritch’s son ‘Spider’ (Jack Champion) among them. Then the humans return… a bloody war begins, with Sully leading a guerrilla campaign. The company resurrects Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) as a Na’vi super soldier to fight on their own terms. After Spider is captured, Sully and his family flee to live among the Metkayina, a sea-living tribe. But they can’t escape the war and its dangers.

    As Avatar: The Way of Water is garlanded with praise and Oscars nominations, I feel like we are all part of a wide conspiracy of silence. So desperate are so many to keep viewers handing over their cash at the box office, that a film completely designed to be seen on the big screen (and this really is) is being praised to the skies by some as a masterpiece. It is not. It’s not even the best Avatar film. Instead, Avatar 2 is a visually impressive but hellishly long, predictable re-tread of the first film that stuffs the eyes with CGI wonders but leaves not a jot for the heart.

    I was reminded part way through the overlong runtime that Cameron once made imaginative, thrilling sequels that completely reset the table. Aliens reinvented a haunted house horror movie as a pulsating action film. Terminator 2 turned a chase story into ramped up family story that mused on destiny. Avatar 2… basically tells exactly the same story, but with a familiar generational family conflict storyline and lots of water. It has the same environmental messages and anti-corporation vibe. When this lands, it works. A whale hunt is shot in terrifying detail, a giant mother whale creature brutally trapped and eviscerated for a small cannister of fluid extracted from its brain. This is also probably the most effective sequence and the one that moved me the most.

    The effects do look impressive. There is no denying that, and the motion capture that turns the actors in blue giants is totally convincing. These Na’vi look and feel like flesh and blood beings. The visual imagination that creates this world, with its sweeping vistas and eclipse-kissed sky not to mention the myriad exotic creatures that populate it are stunning. If Avatar 2 deserves praise it’s for that. Pretty much every single frame looks like it cost a million dollars.

    Unfortunately, it often also has a sheen of unreality. I became desperate for something real to appear on screen. But when only one character out of ten is not an effect, you don’t get much of that. On top of which the decision to film in slick, blur-free 48 frames per second means everything glides across the screen with the perfect-focused quality of a videogame. Don’t know what I mean? Try looking at things around you while moving your head at moderate speed. What do you see? Blur. Blur is real. The perfect focus of this world clues you up in every second that nothing in it is real.

    The lack of reality eventually starts to remind you of The Phantom Menace. In fact, the only thing really separating this from that disaster is that James Cameron is a master director of epic, visual cinema. The film-making here, as a technical exercise , is beyond reproach. And few directors shoot action scenes with as much skill and raw excitement as Cameron. I can’t fault anything about that, even while I struggled to care as they dragged out over a huge chunk of time.

    But Cameron’s weakness as always been the writing. He is a flat and unimaginative writer of dialogue – the Na’vi dialogue is awful flicking from ponderous (“We Sully’s stick together. That is our greatest weakness. And our greatest strength!”) to painfully bad (the number of “Bros” and “Dudes” from the Na’vi teenagers is fist-bitingly awkward, like your Dad trying to be down with the kids).

    That’s not mentioning the fact that it’s so similar to the first film. The earth people return, war starts and eventually our heroes travel to a new part of Pandora where, just like Jake in the first film, they go through a training montage to learn the “way of the water”. This takes up most of the middle act. That’s not forgetting the huge number of themes and characters reshuffled and represented.  We build towards a clash very similar to the first film at the end. Nothing here feels fresh, everything feels like a retread. Our villain is resurrected as a Na’vi but, despite almost being defined by his racism in the first film, he doesn’t bat an eyelid at this.

    There is a vague attempt to transfer Sully’s “torn between two cultures” storyline to Spider. But this character remains terminally under-developed and the film’s attempt to explore the father-son dynamic between him and Quaritch is so rushed, you wonder if Cameron was interested (odd since it’s crucial to the final act). Instead, we get a huge amount of generational clash in the Sully family, with Jake butting heads with his second son who struggles with being “the spare” (oddly appropriate right now), a hot head who gets everyone in trouble. These play out with a reassuring predictability, so much so that if I asked you to guess the fates of those involved you probably could.

    There are bizarre logic gaps. Quaritch and his soldiers have been resurrected to destroy the Na’vi resistance – but instantly drop this for a personal vendetta against Sully (no one seems to care about the resistance after the first half an hour). When Spider is captured, Sully and gang don’t give a damn or even consider rescuing him. Sully doesn’t want to put the forest Na’vi in danger by staying – but doesn’t care about moving that danger to the water people.

    Above all it’s frankly hellishly long, fully of trivial culture clash stuff and just the fact that the people in at are giant and blue or that it looks fabulous doesn’t make it good. Instead, Avatar 2 is a re-tread that feels like its treading water, spinning plates and repeating rather than reinventing. I’d rather watch the original again which, while it wasn’t inspiring, at least felt new.

  • Intolerance (1916)

    Scale and sensation fill the screen in this ground-breaking epic that has to be seen to be believed

    Director: DW Griffith

    Cast: Mae Marsh (The Dear One), Robert Harron (The Boy), Constance Talmadge (The Mountain Girl), Alfred Paget (Prince Belshazzar), Bessie Love (The Bride of Cana), Walter Long (The Musketeer of the Slums), Howard Gaye (Jesus Christ), Lillian Langdon (The Virgin Mary), Frank Bennett (Charles IX), Josephine Crowell (Catherine de Medici), WE Lawrence (Hendi de Navarre), Lillian Gish (Woman Who Rocks the Cradle)

    Even today I’m not sure there is anything like it. (Perhaps only the bizarrely OTT Cloud Atlas gets anywhere near it). DW Griffith’s follow-up to his (now infamous) smash-hit success The Birth of a Nation would not just be a melodrama with a social conscience (as he originally planned). Instead, it would be a sweeping epic that have as its theme humanity itself. Intolerance (captioned “Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages”) would intercut four timelines simultaneously, each showing how prejudice, envy, and rage had shattered lives throughout the history of mankind.

    Griffith wanted to make the biggest film ever. The sort of sweeping spectacle that would confine all other competitors to the dustbin of history and cement himself as the new media’s master visionary. Intolerance is certainly that, a film of dizzying technical and narrative scale. Never before had a film thematically intercut between four unlinked but complementary timelines. Nothing links these stories other than theme: all four play out in parallel, events in one reflected in another. Essentially, it’s like a massive book of fables where all the pages have been cut out, reorganised and handed back to you.

    Intolerance started life as The Mother and the Law. This social-issue drama followed a young couple – the Dear One (Mae Marsh) and the Boy (Robert Harron) – forced to flee their factory community for the big city, after the brutal crushing of a strike. There, the Boy is sucked into the circle of a local gangster The Musketeer of the Slums (Walter Long). He renounces it all for love, before he is framed for theft and imprisoned. Then the couple are stripped of their baby and he is arrested again for the murder of the gangster (actually done by his moll). Will the sentence be revoked?

    This is still the backbone – and takes up the most of the film’s runtime. But the one thing it didn’t really have is spectacle. A lot of it happens in rooms (bar a last-minute train and car chase). As well as expanding the film’s scope, Griffith also wanted to dial up the scale. Intercut with this are three grandiose historical narratives. In the largest, Griffith had the whole of Babylon rebuilt just so he could film its fall (after betrayal from the priests), despite the struggles of the Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge) who is in-love-from-afar with Prince Belshazzar (Alfred Paget). We also get the St Bartholomew Day’s Massacre of 1572, as French Catholics butchered their Protestant neighbours. And finally, just to dial up the import, we get the last days of Jesus Christ.

    The scale of it! The sets of Babylon have to be seen to be believed. Huge, towering structures so large they dwarf elephants and the thousands of extras thrown in for scale. The camera pans slowly up to stress their gigantism and zooms in slowly in tracking shots to pick out a specific face among thousands. The siege of Babylon plays out like a real military action: armies of extras play out a choreographed battle on multiple levels of the walls while elephants push siege engines into place. Some nifty special effects allow on-screen beheadings and for us to see swords, arrows and spears plunge into bodies. It’s genuinely exciting and influenced every siege you’ve seen on film since.

    This scale isn’t just restricted to Babylon. The modern plotline brilliantly recreates strike action by the masses, including a brutal put-down by private and government forces. Questing for a late pardon for her husband (who is literally walking towards the gallows while they do), the Dear One and a kindly policeman hop into the fastest car they can find to chase down the Governor’s train. In 1572, the streets of Paris are skilfully recreated – as are the grand palaces – and the action of the massacre is shot with an intense, Bruegelesque immersion. Jesus is mocked by a large crowd as he drags his cross through the streets before being crucified on a bloody-sky kissed hill with flashes of terrifying red lightening.

    The huge scale is also carried across in Griffith’s narrative. This was intended as important film-making with a capital I. Griffith’s film is in places surprisingly anti-authoritarian and firmly on the side of the little guy. The modern strike is caused by a factory wage cut. Why? Because more money is needed for the firm’s charity work and it needs to come from somewhere. The charity workers are, to a woman, shown as judgemental, smug and causing more harm than good from their arrogant assertion that they know best. Homes are broken up, jobs are sacrificed and mothers judged “not good enough” separated from their children. All in the name of a moral crusade that’s more focused on prohibition than protection.

    In Babylon, the priests of Bel are weasily, bitter, power-hungry figures, furious at the arrival of the new female God Ishtar, selling the city out to the barbarian hordes to preserve the old religion. The French court are certain the only way to guarantee peace (but really their own positions against the Hugenout faction) is to kill them all. Jesus’ presence is met with stern-faced priests wondering what they can do to get shot of this trouble-maker. We are always invited to sympathise with humble, simple people who want to make their own choices: Brown Eyes (Margery Wilson), a Hugenout daughter hoping to marry, the boisterous Mountain Girl, the loving Dear One and the Boy.

    To keep this feeling like a universal fable of hope, names are kept as non-specific as these. Small human moments abound. Brown Eyes is as giddy as schoolgirl on the day before her wedding. Henry IV weeps and nearly vomits after being brow-beaten into ordering the massacre. The Mountain Girl – dragged to a market fair for her obstinacy – decides the best way to put off husbands is to chow down on onions. The Dear One and the Boy go on a charming date, at the end of which she pleads for the strength of character to resist the temptation to let him into her flat before they are married. It’s these little beats of humanity that help sustain the scale.

    Intolerance is connected together with a series of captions – frequently badly-written and pretentious (e.g. “The loom of fate wove death for the father”) – and via a recurring image of a woman rocking a cradle, which I think represents the circle of life. The editing between the storylines is masterful though and the film’s pace and structure is generally so well maintained that your understanding of when and where we are is never challenged for a moment.

    There have been claims Griffith’s more human epic was a correction to his Birth of the Nation. But that’s to misunderstand the sort of era Griffith came from. In his Victorian background, it was in no-way a contradiction for a man to be both a white supremacist and a sentimental liberal. Griffith believed the South were victims of the Civil War and the ‘unjust’ Reconstruction and felt Intolerance was a logical continuation of that theme. A few of his prejudices are on show here anyway. The only black faces are sinister heavies among the ‘barbarians’ attacking Babylon. Henry of Navarre is a limp-wristed sissy. The female reformers are all ugly harridans (the caption even tells us “When women cease to attract men they often turn to reform as a second choice”). Intolerance is an interesting reminder that a director we now think of today as American cinema’s leading racist was that and a man who passionately believed in social justice. Contradiction is the most human quality we have.

    There may be a little too much in Intolerance considering its crushing run-time (the Jesus scenes could be cut with no real loss at all), but generally it hits a balance between pomposity and entertainment. It has plenty of violence and naked ladies (the harem of Babylon is shown in detail – it’s pre-Code folks) to keep the punters entertained, along with charm (though you need to look past the pose-taking, broadness of the performances). Griffith has a way with little shots: there is a lovely track into the face of the Dear One as she silently mourns. The chase in the modern plotline is genuinely tense while the massacre of the innocents in 1572 actually horrifying.

    Above all, Intolerance set the table for epic cinema in exactly the way Griffith intended. While it is full of big ideas – at times clumsily presented – it’s also full of breath-taking spectacle that has influenced generations to come. For that reason, if nothing else, anyone interested in film should see it.

  • All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

    War is Hell in this impressively made but strangely unoriginal film, that looks the same and carries the same message as countless others

    Director: Edward Berger

    Cast: Felix Kammerer (Paul Bäumer), Albrecht Schuch (Stanislas “Kat” Katczinsky), Aaron Hilmer (Albert Kropp), Moritz Klaus (Franz Müller), Adrian Grünewald (Ludwig Behm), Edin Hasanovic (Tjaden Stackfleet), Daniel Brühl (Matthias Erzberger), Thibault de Montalambert (General Ferdinand Foch), David Striesow (General Friedrichs)

    Perhaps no front-line fighting in history was more hellish than the mud-splattered sludge of death that were the First World War Trenches. Millions of men were fed through an industrial mincer of death, all for remarkably little gain. It was a tragedy born of ambition and pride. It’s cost on the young was beautifully captured by Erich Maria Remarque’s novel (an adaptation of which was one of the first Oscar winners) and it is bought to the screens again in this visceral German adaptation.

    Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) and his friends are naïve young men excited to serve in Spring 1917. Little do they know the blood-soaked, brutal reality of war. It’s soon thrust upon them when their first night in the trenches coincides with a catastrophic artillery attack. Skip forward a year and its November 1918. While Germany’s lead negotiator Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) tries to end the war, Paul and his mentor “Kat” (Albrecht Schuch) just hope to survive. But is there any hope?

    All Quiet on the Western Front is raw, bloody and unflinching in its glance at the horrific realities of war. Shot with a cinematic beauty by Edward Berger that turns the mist filled world of no-man’s land into a sort of dreamscape that tips into a nightmare, it leaves no doubt about the brutal cost of war. Bodies are torn apart by explosions, shredded by bullets (even dead ones). Hand-to-hand combat is ruthless and there is not a jot of quarter given on any side. Everything is coated in a sheen of mud and blood, with dying men desperately gulping filthy water or left slumped where they fall.

    The after-effects of war are horrifically shown. On their first night one of Paul’s friend is literally shredded by mortar fire. Bodies left on no-man’s land are peppered with bullets. The remains of a soldier is blasted out of his uniform, left hanging several feet up a tree. Paul and Kat discover a missing regiment of young recruits dead in an old factory, having removed their gas masks too soon. Tanks emerge from the mist, setting the ground shaking, rats fleeing before them, spewing death from their machine gun turrets, crushing screaming men under their tracks.

    This is actually a fairly loose adaptation of the novel. The original prided itself on its lack of specifics: it’s never quite sure when or where it happens other than in the trenches. The soldiers fight in brutal battles in unnamed locations and simply live a day-to-day existence. This version make everything very specific: November 1918. Sub-plots around the armistice negotiations and the unwillingness of a die-hard Prussian General (a vilely arrogant David Striesow) to accept defeat expand the film beyond the novel’s original scope. However, this expansion never feels fully explored and at times detracts from the film’s richer, more intimate focus on the soldiers.

    Berger’s film perfectly captures the sense of these boys being fed into a huge industrial meatgrinder in a cycle of death. The opening sequence follows a young soldier. He trembles with fear before going over the top, aimlessly fires his bullets and then grabs his spade to continue the charge and bludgeon a soldier. Cut to black before we follow the progress of Heinrich’s uniform. It is removed from his dead body, carted back to Germany, washed, repaired and then handed over to Paul as he signs up. Paul questions the name-tag inside: “Must have been too small. Happens all the time” the recruiting officer says, ripping it out. It’s all a production line.

    Paul soon learns the truth. Felix Kammerer is excellent as this sensitive, enthusiastic young man (forging his father’s signature so he can join up) who sheds his innocence to become a battle-hardened warrior, succumbing to a mechanical, merciless violence in combat. He kills without hesitation and when guilt arrives – such as his killing of a French soldier in a fox hole – it leaves little long-term impact, so deadened has he become. Equally good is Albrecht Schuch, humane and worldly-wise figure as Kat. The bond – part brotherly, part father-son – is the film’s most affecting personal beat, and its most effecting scene involves Paul reading the illiterate Kat his mail.

    There is much to admire here. But yet, while a technical triumph and immersive experience (even its score plays out with the organ-led heaviness of an artillery attack), I was less impressed with it than I expected. Perhaps that’s because it does or says nothing new. The original film was made by many people who were actually in the trenches. This film was made by people who grew up watching movies about wars. It’s frames of reference are subtly different, although its intentions are the same. Maybe that’s why I find it less affecting and less shocking than a film made 100 years ago.

    For all its technical skill, the film is a continuation of visual grammar and thematic ideas established in countless films before. The blood-spattered immediacy of Saving Private Ryan. Tracking shots that remind you of 1917 and Paths of Glory. The on-the-streets fury of Black Hawk Down. The rumbling soundtrack of Dunkirk. It tells us War is Hell: but nothing else. Maybe that message is enough and it deserves repeating. But when the film expands the original like this, you want more.

    The inclusion of the armistice works against it. The time jump means we lose any sense of the slow disillusionment of these men. Several key moments from the book – most notably Paul’s brief return to a home he can no longer relate to – have been stripped out. Setting the film in the last week of the war leads to a predictable ending that feels like its straining for even more pathos – of course there will be key deaths in the final minutes of the war. A more daring film might have looked more at how a harsh armistice and dark mutterings of betrayal led so many of these young men to hurl Germany back into war only twenty years later.

    All Quiet on the Western Front is powerful, but its power is one of reiterating a familiar message. Berger’s film is wonderfully made but only follows confidently in the footprints of other (better) films. It avoids developing its message or context further and it’s expansion of the book’s plotline waters down the personal stories that made it so affecting. It’s grand, cinematic and powerful – but could have been more.

  • The Heiress (1949)

    Is it love or is it avarice? Wyler’s sumptuous costume drama is a brilliant translation of Henry James to the screen

    Director: William Wyler

    Cast: Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Sloper), Montgomery Clift (Morris Townsend), Ralph Richardson (Dr Austin Sloper), Miriam Hopkins (Lavinia Penniman), Vanessa Brown (Maria), Betty Linley (Mrs Montgomery), Ray Collins (Jefferson Almond), Mona Freeman (Marian Almond), Selena Royle (Elizabeth Almond), Paul Lees (Arthur Townsend)

    Pity poor Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland). She’s seems destined forever to be the spinster, the last person anyone glances at during a party. Her father Dr Sloper (Ralph Richardson) can’t so much as walk into a room without gently telling how infinitely inferior she is to her mother. And when a man finally seems keen to court her, her father tells her that of course handsome Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) will only be interested in her inheritance. After all, there is nothing a young man could love in a forgettable, dull, second-rate woman like Catherine. He’s cruel, but is he right – is Morris a mercenary?

    The Heiress was adapted from a play itself a version of Henry James’ Washington Square. It’s bought magnificently to the screen in a lush, sensational costume drama that comes closer than anyone else at capturing those uniquely Jamesian qualities of ambiguity and contradictory motives among the New American elites. Magnificently directed by William Wyler, it brilliantly turns a theatrical character piece into something that feels intensely cinematic, without once resorting to clumsy ‘opening up the play’ techniques. And it marshals brilliant performances at its heart.

    Sumptuously costumed by Edith Head, whose costumes subtly change and develop along with its central character’s emotional state throughout the story, it’s largely set in a magnificently detailed Upper New York household, shot in deep focus perfection by Leo Tover, which soaks up both the reaction of every character and the rich, detailed perfection of decoration which may just be motivating some of the characters. Not that we can be sure about that, since the motives of Morris Townsend and his pursuit of Catherine remain cunningly unreadable: just as you convince yourself he’s genuine, he’ll show a flash of avarice – then he’ll seem so genuinely warm and loving, you’ll be sure he must be telling the truth or be the world’s greatest liar.

    Catherine certainly wants it to be true – and believes it with a passion. The project was also a passion piece for de Havilland, and this is an extraordinary, Oscar-winning performance that delves deeply into the psyche of someone who has been (inadvertently perhaps) humiliated and belittled all her life and eventually reacts in ways you could not predict. Catherine is clumsy, naïve and lacking in any finesse. With her light, breathless voice and inability to find the right words, she’s a doormat for anyone. She even offers to carry the fishmonger’s wares into the house for him. At social functions, her empty dance card is studiously checked and her only skill seems to be cross-stitch.

    She is an eternal disappointment to her father, who meets her every action and utterance with a weary smile and a throwaway, unthinking comment that cuts her to the quick. Richardson, funnelling his eccentric energy into tight control and casual cruelty, is magnificent here. In some ways he might be one of the biggest monsters in the movies. This is a man who has grown so accustomed to weighing his daughter against his deceased wife (and finding her wanting) that the implications of the impact of this on his daughter never crosses his mind.

    Catherine is never allowed to forget that she is a dumpy dullard and a complete inadequate compared to the perfection of her mother. Richardson’s eyes glaze over with undying devotion when remembering this perfection of a woman, and mementoes of her around the house or places she visited (even a Parisian café table later in the film) are treated as Holy Relics. In case we are in any doubts, his words when she tries on a dress for a cousin’s engagement party sum it up. It’s red, her mother’s colour, and looks rather good on her although he sighs “your mother was fair: she dominated the colour”. Like Rebecca this paragon can never be lived up to.

    So, it’s a life-changing event when handsome Morris Townsend enters her life. There was criticism at the time that Clift may have been too nice and too handsome to play a (possible) scoundrel. Quite the opposite: Clift’s earnestness, handsomeness and charm are perfect for the role, while his relaxed modernism as an actor translates neatly in this period setting into what could-be arrogant self-entitlement. Nevertheless, his attention and flirtation with Catherine at a party is a blast from the blue for this woman, caught mumbling her words, dropping her bag and fiddling nervously with her dance card (pretending its fuller than of course it is).

    Her father, who sees no value in her, assumes it is not his tedious child Morris has his eyes on, but the $30k a year she stands to inherit. And maybe he knows because these two men have tastes in common, Morris even commenting “we like the same things” while starring round a house he all too clearly can imagine himself living in – by implication, they also have dislikes in common. (And who does Sloper dislike more, in a way, than Catherine?) Morris protests his affections so vehemently (and Sloper lays out his case with such matter-of-fact bluntness) that we want to believe him, even while we think someone who makes himself so at home in Sloper’s absence (helping himself to brandy and cigars) can’t be as genuine as he wants us to think.

    As does Catherine. Part of the brilliance of de Havilland’s performance is how her performance physically alters and her mentality changes as events buffet her. A woman who starts the film mousey and barely able to look at herself in the mirror, ends it firm-backed and cold-eyed, her voice changing from a light, embarrassed breathlessness into something hard, deep and sharp. De Havilland in fact swallows Richardson’s characteristics, Sloper’s precision and inflexibility becoming her core characteristics. The wide-eyed woman at the ball is a memory by the film’s conclusion, Catherine becoming tough but making her own choices. As she says to her father, she has lived all her life with a man who doesn’t love her. If she spends the rest of it with another, at least that will be her choice.

    Wyler assembles this superbly, with careful camera placement helping to draw out some gorgeous performances from the three leads – not to forgetting Miriam Hopkins as a spinster aunt, who seems as infatuated with Morris as Catherine is. The film is shaped, at key moments, around the house’s dominant staircase. Catherine runs up it in glee at the film’s start with her new dress, later sits on it watching eagerly as Morris asks (disastrously) for her hand. Later again, she will trudge up it in defeated misery and will end the film ascending it with unreadable certainty.

    The Heiress is a magnificent family drama, faultlessly acted by the cast under pitch-perfect direction, that captures something subtly unreadable. We can believe that motives change, grow and even alter over time – and maybe that someone can love somebody and their money at the same time (perhaps). But we also understand the trauma of constant emotional pain and the hardening a lifetime of disappointment can have. It’s the best James adaption you’ll ever see.

  • Corsage (2022)

    The perils of a life married into royalty are as tricky for some 150 years ago as they are today

    Director: Marie Kreutzer

    Cast: Vicky Krieps (Empress Elizabeth), Florian Teichtmeister (Emperor Franz Joseph I), Katharine Lorenz (Countess Marie Festetics), Jeanne Werner (Ida Ferenczy), Manuel Rubey (King Ludwig II), Finnegan Oldfield (Louis de Prince), Aaron Friesz (Prince Rudolf), Rosa Hajjaj (Valerie), Lily Marie Tschörtner (Queen Maria Sophie), Colin Morgan (George “Bay” Middleton)

    Known to the world as Sisi, there are few more troubled figures in the history of European royalty than Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Locked into a largely loveless marriage with Emperor Franz Joseph, she struggled with the expectations of her position. She suffered from an eating disorder in an obsession to reduce her waist size, exercising vigorously every day. She was an international icon, formed strong bonds with the Hungarian people, helping integrate them into the Austro-Hungarian empire and her later life was touched with tragedy (including her son killing himself in a murder-suicide pact with his lover) before her assassination.

    Only touches of this dynamic story make it into this curious film, that focuses on one facet of her personality at the cost of exploring others. Focusing on the years 1877-78, Elizabeth (Vicky Krieps) is strapped into ever tighter corsets, struggles with “representing” Austria, attempts several love affairs that end in rejection, smothers her youngest child Valerie (Rosa Hajjaj) with affection and is prescribed a new “wonder drug” (heroin) to ease her nerves. While her family despair, she starts to groom her lady-in-waiting Marie (Katherine Lorenz) to stand-in for her at public events.

    From a British perspective, pretty clear parallels are drawn between Elizabeth and that icon of 20th century monarchy Princess Diana. Like Diana, Elizabeth’s personal struggles are misunderstood and unsupported by her royal network. An intelligent, passionate woman, Elizabeth stifles under conditions that require her to do and say as little as possible. Her dull, formal husband (Florean Teichtmeister, refreshingly decent and befuddled as the Emperor) merely needs her to wave at events, nothing more. She finds this increasingly oppressive and constrictive.

    Kreutzer’s film is a stylish presentation of Elizabeth as a sort of Royal rebel. Drenched in lavender – even the cigarettes she chainsmokes are lavender – Elizabeth takes every opportunity she can to leave the palace, avoids “smile and wave” events and behaves with unpredictability at social events (she’s as likely to laugh and flirt as storm out giving the room the finger). Her fainting could be due to her incredibly tight corsets – or it could just be a way of causing mischief. The system around her simply doesn’t know how to react to someone who doesn’t know herself what she really wants.

    Corsage is most engaged with this analysis of undiagnosed depression, at a time when the condition was largely utterly unknown. We can see Elizabeth is mired in misery, but to others she’s merely a self-indulgent, difficult, un-co-operative woman. Shot with a candle-lit intimacy and drained out colours, the film presents the world much as Elizabeth (it suggests) may have seen it. Dark, oppressive and domineering.

    Kreutser bravely avoids making her completely sympathetic. The film doesn’t shirk in showing how selfish and self-obsessed she can be. She can’t tell her maids apart (even Franz Joseph is more clued up on their names), bans loyal lady-in-waiting Marie from marrying as she needs her too much and drags her daughter through endless reluctant excursions (including a pre-sunrise horse ride) because she’s more interested in moulding her than listening to her.

    Vicky Krieps embodies this prickly personality with huge skill. There are flashes of the sort of person Elizabeth could be. She frolics playfully for an early film camera in the countryside and comes flirtingly to life with two potential lovers, an English riding instructor “Bay” (played with bashful charm by Colin Morgan) and the man closest to being a kindred spirit King Ludwig II of Bavaria (an ebullient Manuel Rubey). Sadly, Bay is far too cautious to become the Empress’ lover (even when she turns up at his room dressed in little more than her corsage) and Ludwig far too gay (much as he values her friendship).

    Krieps performance is full of empathy for her pain. She skilfully communicates her mixed feelings towards her genuinely decent-but-dull husband (Franz Joseph, the sort of man who peels off his fake sideburns and stores them carefully in a box). But also makes her demanding, sullen and frequently rude and overbearing. She lashes out at and banishes from her presence those who ‘betray’ her.

    Elizabeth’s status is compared with those in the mental health hospitals she took such an interest in.  There women are bound to their beds or dunked in freezing baths to cure them of their lustful desires) and the war wounded. It’s a reminder that things could be a lot worse. But it’s also a reminder of the film’s singular focus, away from the other facets of this woman’s personality. There is no real reference to her efforts to support the Hungarian people, her most successful attempt to break out of the confines of her role. It’s part of the film’s sometimes myopic view of its subject.

    Kreutzer’s film is full of style. But it’s sometimes hard to see to what purpose. Much of the music the characters listen to is anachronistic modern pop (performed by period instruments). Locations have been deliberately chosen for their ramshackle, faded appearance, no attempt made to return them to the grandeur they would had at the time. Elizabeth takes dips in a very modern pool and the film closes on a cruise liner that wouldn’t look out of place today. Semi-surreal moments pop-up, such as Elizabeth towering in a small-scale room that may-or-may-not be either a giant doll’s house or a visual representation of her state of mind. But they never quite coalesce into a whole or carry a clear purpose, beyond design flourish.

    I think part of this is because the film delves into Elizabeth’s depression but offers little in way of acute analysis as to why she felt like this. With most of the interesting events of her life kept out of the film, we effectively drop into a few years of depression without a wider context of her interests or passions. Elizabeth becomes someone the film defines largely by her position, much as her depressing life did, leaving her remaining a somewhat puzzling enigma.

    It culminates in a genuinely confusing, alternate history scenario that I was mystified what the film intended to me to feel about. Does it end on a note of tragedy or triumph? I’ve no idea – and the coda with Krieps dancing confuses me further. It’s a befuddling ending for a stylish film (with a great central performance) but which is often one-note. Eventually you feel you effectively learned everything it had to say after the first few minutes, and its happiness to settle for repetition and style over a more searching study eventually makes it disappointing.

  • Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (2011)

    We’re going on a Mole Hunt: Le Carré’s finest book is boiled down into an atmospheric and masterful spy thriller

    Director: Tomas Alfredson

    Cast: Gary Oldman (George Smiley), Colin Firth (Bill Haydon), Tom Hardy (Ricki Tarr), Mark Strong (Jim Prideaux), Ciaran Hinds (Roy Bland), Benedict Cumberbatch (Peter Guillam), David Dencik (Toby Esterhase), Toby Jones (Percy Alleline), John Hurt (Control), Kathy Burke (Connie Sachs), Roger Lloyd-Pack (Mendel), Svetlana Khodchenkove (Irina), Konstantin Khabensky (Polyakov)

    Anyone taking on this, Le Carré’s finest novel faced a tough challenge. After all, arguably the definitive version already exists: the masterful, slow-burn, 1979 TV adaptation (one of my favourite films ever) starring an Alec Guinness so perfect as the rotund, inscrutable spy-master George Smiley that Le Carré stated he could no longer write the character without thinking of him. I’ve long been nuts for Tinker, Tailor: I rushed to the cinema to see this with an equally keen-friend about five days before my wedding (on my wife-to-be’s birthday!) because I was looking forward to it so much. (Despite this the wedding went ahead). It can’t match that Guinness version – but it runs it close.

    It’s the height of the Cold War, and the respected head of the British Intelligence Services (‘the Circus’) Control (John Hurt) is forced out, along with his deputy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) after a rogue mission in Hungary goes disastrously wrong. Over a year later, Smiley is secretly recalled to lead a mole hunt. Someone at the top of the service is a Russian agent – but who? New head Percy Alleline (Toby Jones)? Or one of the deputies – Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) or Toby Esterhase (David Dencik)?

    The first inspiration here is the screenplay. When I heard the film was two hours long I was stunned: the TV series unfolded over nearly seven hours! But the script, by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor (who tragically died of cancer during it’s making) is a masterpiece. It brilliantly and skilfully compresses and restructures the novel, boiling down scenes to their core. But yet, it never feels rushed. The script creates composite scenes – most brilliantly a flashback to a Circus Christmas party – which allows a vast range of sub-plots and characters to simultaneously unfold.

    Alongside this, the film is superbly, atmospherically directed by Tomas Alfredson. Alfredson brings a sharp, outsider’s view to this public-school nightmare turned espionage hub. These are posh boys, running an exclusive club, which plays by punishing rules. Everyone constantly spies one everyone else and there is no moment of privacy. Alfredsen brilliantly explores the social and emotional impact of spying, trapped within a grim and oppressive 70s mileu of dirt, beige, fear and loneliness.

    The film is brilliantly designed, capturing a vast array of 70s designs and shades. The Circus is an industrial office – with its centre piece an orange lined, sound-proof room. Streets are lined with political graffiti – at one point we see “The Future is Female” a nifty comment on the all-male institution we are watching. Communist Hungary is a post-industrial slum, hotel rooms crowded with papers, cigarette smoke and overflowing ash trays.

    At the centre is Gary Oldman, simply brilliant as Smiley. Controlled, measured and deploying only as much energy is needed, Smiley adds a hint of Guinness to his voice and always seems in control. But this lugubrious Smiley bubbles with tension, driven by twin demons. The first is Karla, the Russian spy-master Smiley let slip through his fingers years ago, the subject of a maudlin late-night recollection to his assistant Guillam. Even more important is his wife Ann, the betrayer Smiley still loves to distraction, a half-sight of her enough to make him stumble and lose breath. We never see either of these clearly in the film, reflecting their status as the only characters Smiley never understands and can’t make cool, calm, passion-free decisions about.

    Cold-eyed reason guides everything else he does. Oldman’s Smiley may be grandfatherly, softly-spoken and controlled, but he’s as ruthless (if not more so) than everyone else. Smiley is precise and patient. There is a beautiful character establishing moment: Smiley, Mendel and Guillam are in a car bothered by a wasp. Guillam and Mendel flap with futile energy: Smiley waits and then lowers the window slightly at the perfect moment to let the wasp fly out. It captures in microcosm Smiley’s investigation. But he’s not afraid to use force: quietly threatening Dencik’s trembling Esterhase with deportation (not even flinching as a plane lands behind him), ruthlessly mining witnesses for evidence and verbally lashing out bitterly at the mole.

    Alfredson’s film zeroes in on much of the emotional impact on spying. Smiley is a man slightly lost in the world outside of spying: retired, he seems adrift walking the streets, swims alone, sits at home in his suit. He’s so deactivated he doesn’t even speak for the first 18 minutes of the film, when he is recalled to life. Smiley has suppressed his emotions so completely only the shadow of his wife can move him. His home is a strange shrine, so much so he even keeps the gifts her lover gives her.

    Each of the characters suffers under their burdens, and the demands on them for secrecy and isolation. Mark Strong’s Jim Prideaux buries himself in guilt in a caravan and forms a friendship with a young boy he later realises he is crafting into the same secretive man he is. Guillam is quietly ordered by Smiley to end his relationship with his boyfriend and acquiesces in private tears. Connie Sachs lives in retirement like a mad woman in an attic, cradling her memories. Control dies alone in a hospital bed. Later the Mole clings to having “made his mark” to supress his guilt, while a man whose career is ruined walks into oblivion blank faced not even noticing the rain around him.

    Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is full of moments like this, the high-price of dogged, dedicated work like spying. Alfredson’s coolly, beautifully shot film (by Hoyte van Hoytema) with its lyrical score by Alfredo Iglesias is a masterpiece of tone. This is a dark, dangerous world and we are constantly reminded of it, in between the muttered meetings in board rooms and dark corriders. Tom Hardy’s (wonderful) Ricki Tarr and Mark Strong’s deeply emotional Prideaux are spies-on-the-ground, face-to-face with dangers. Theirs is a world of brutal throat-cuts, eviscerations in a bath and sudden executions. The decisions played out in rooms like that orange-lined sound-proof office with its methodical, intricate ship’s clock, lead to death and violence.

    The film is stuffed with beautifully composed shots and brilliantly edited (Dino Jonsäter’s cuts frequently carry us over brilliantly over transitions and segues that streamline the narrative perfectly). Despite cutting back and forth over multiple timelines, it’s always clear when we are (an ingenious device sees Smiley change his glasses in retirement, instantly grounding us in the timeline based on the pair he is wearing). The Christmas party scene – exactly the sort of bizarre public-school irreverent piss-up (where spies who fight night and day to destroy the USSR raucously sing communist songs with a Lenin-dressed Santa) is a superb distillation of character and plot beats and becomes, in many ways the emotional pivot of the movie. It’s a very inventive addition.

    The film assembles a superb cast. Oldman, of course, leads from the front but there is not a weak turn in the cast. Hardy is gritty, bitter and jumped-up, Cumberbatch holding his tension down under professionalism, Strong drips quiet grief, Firth swaggers with superb, assured insouciance, Hurt is the book’s arch-spy-master come to life, Jones is full of preening pride, Burke lost in memories. If I’d like the film to be longer for any reason, it would be to see more of these actors.

    Full of moody, seventies beauty and creeping paranoia, it’s also crammed with beautifully judged lines and incidental moments from the book. Alfredson’s atmospheric film has a profound emotional understanding of the cost of this life of isolation and paranoia. It took a couple of viewings, but this emerges from the shadow of my favourite TV series.