Thursday, 31 January 2019

The Front Runner (2018)

Hugh Jackman in the centre of a media scrum in misfiring biopic The Front Runner

Director: Jason Reitman
Cast: Hugh Jackman (Gary Hart), Vera Farmiga (Lee Hart), JK Simmons (Bill Dixon), Alfred Molina (Ben Bradlee), Sara Paxton (Donna Rice), Mamoudou Athie (AJ Parker), John Bedford Lloyd (David S Broder), Spencer Garrett (Bob Woodward), Steve Coulter (Bob Kaiser), Ari Garynor (Ann Devroy), Steve Zissis (Tom Fiedler), Bill Burr (Pete Murphy), Mike Judge (Jim Savage), Kevin Pollak (Bob Martindale)

In the 1988 Democratic primaries, Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) was the man to beat: a telegenic liberal with an attractive programme of policies and a forward-thinking vision for America. No one could beat Hart. Except for Hart himself. A man with a history of affairs, he became embroiledin a sex scandal after an ill-advised friendship (the film is coy on taking a stance on whether this friendship was sexual or not) with a young woman, Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). Angrily denying anything was going on, Hart unwisely challenged journalists to follow him: which the Miami Herald did, soon finding Hart had skipped campaign events to invite Rice to come and stay with him at his Washington home for a long weekend… Cue a media snowstorm and an imploded campaign.

Reitman’s film is a pretty decent chronicle of this early media sex scandal. I say pretty good because it does what it sets out to do with a solid observation of the facts and a general even handedness between Hart and the media. However it never really quite sparks into life, and Reitman’s attempt to make this story into something with huge relevance for how the modern media has developed, and how the world of politics has led us to Trump, just doesn’t really work. 

What the film instead becomes is a slightly dry but enjoyable enough docu-drama, that covers a period of history that should feel tumultuous and should create a sense of setting the table for the future but doesn’t. The idea that it was only at this point that American politicians suddenly had interest from the press in their personal lives is nonsense for anyone who had even a passing knowledge of the careers of Kennedy and Nixon. The film’s attempt to make us sympathise with Hart is also undermined by the high-handed arrogance with which he treats even the slightest inquiry into his personal life from anyone, be it press to members of staff who simply want an explanation of why their leader consistently demonstrates such astonishing poor judgement.

This is despite a decent performance of charisma from Hugh Jackman, possibly better than Hart deserves. The film does demonstrate – amidst its general sympathy for Hart – his willingness to throw Donna Rice under the media bus and his stubborn refusal to acknowledge any wrong-doing on his own part. I can’t say I actually really felt much sympathy for him over the course of the film, which I’m not sure was the film’s intention.

Neither did I really feel the film really skewered journalism. I think it wants to lay a suggestion that this was the first descent on a slippery slope, where gutter press, personality led journalism led to only egotists of mediocre talent wanting to take on the challenge of running the country. Or rather, that we get the politicians we deserve. While you could say there is some merit in this, I’m not sure this film manages to present that fully (Hart’s behaviour is at least partly self-destructive and would have been in any era) or that it really establishes that we are living in the shadow of times like this. And the investigation into Hart's lies and evasions is hardly gutter press journalism. Neither does the film make a real case for Hart being some sort of potential great leader: while he has some decent, liberal, ideas he's also short-tempered, lacks focus and has a tendency to snap at or cold shoulder underlings.

A bit of spin in the movie is got out of Jack Kennedy’s numerous affairs not being covered by the press. And while that is true, this seems less because of a natural shyness of the press, but rather because Kennedy was more astute at making friends in the fourth estate, and more willing to share parts of his life outside politics with them for stories (essentially, he made news for the press, making them more willing to keep quiet about his adulteries, while Kennedy avoided doing anything too blatant that the press would find impossible to ignore). Hart’s real problem was less that he was in a more censorious or gutter press era, and more that he was inept at press (and people) management, treating those around him with high handed contempt, mixed with challenges and threats. The film could almost be a textbook on how not to use the media.

It’s telling Hart’s only real relationship with a reporter in the film is with a young, impressionable (and fictional) Washington Post journalist (played very well by Mamoudou Athie). Hart comforts him through a mild panic attack during a flight and they develop a friendship, which I think the film wants us to think the journalist betrays by asking Hart the difficult questions about his lack of faithfulness and proclivity for affairs (all pretty well documented historically). I’m not sure that is the case. Surely, by this stage almost any thinking human being in the States was asking these questions, and by putting them to the candidate, surely this journalist was simply doing their job? The “tragedy” of Hart was his incompetence at working with people, rather than his questionable private activities being brought to light.

The film struggles with all these themes and I don’t think it really successfully tackles any of them. The case it tries to set out doesn’t really work and, despite some fine observational moments of politics in action and a good performance from Jackman, it never really takes flight as it should. It’s a decent effort but a misfire.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

45 Years (2015)

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling excel in a successful marriage suddenly going wrong after 45 Years

Director: Andrew Haigh

Cast: Charlotte Rampling (Kate Mercer), Tom Courtenay (Geoff Mercer), Geraldine James (Lena), David Sibley (George), Dolly Wells (Charlotte)

What would you do if you found out, after 45 years, that there were huge things you never, ever, knew about the partner you had shared your life with? That the very basis of your marriage is completely different than you believed? How would that change everything you remembered before that? How could that change where your marriage may go in the future?

That’s the situation Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) a retired teacher in a quiet country house outside Norwich finds herself in. Five days before their 45th wedding anniversary party, her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) receives a letter from the German police notifying them the body of a girl who died 50 years ago, Katya, has been found. Katya had been lost falling into a crevasse on a climbing holiday with Geoff. Geoff is profoundly shaken and distracted by the news – and over the next week, it emerges his relationship with Katya was far more profound and important to him than he has ever mentioned to Kate (and in fact he has never mentioned Katya to her before).

Counter as it runs to spoiler territory, I’ll say off the bat that Geoff did not murder Katya (the obvious, knee-jerk, twist we expect from years of films). Instead this is a far more complex and engaging story about the impact profound, emotional revelations can have on relationships that seem as strong and long-lasting as between Geoff and Kate. The film follows a single week as long since buried feelings, emotions and resentments begin to simmer and burst out – and as Kate begins to question everything she has ever understood about her Geoff and her life.

And how shocking would that be if you learned things about the person you loved that suddenly made them feel like a completely different person? And how could you ever begin to compete the with the romantic image your partner has in their head of someone who died 50 years ago, before they ever met you, but whom you start to feel everything you have ever done or said has been quietly, maybe even subconsciously, judged against?

45 Years is a hugely intelligent, acute and engrossing film. Virtually a two hander, it relies on the actors – shot by Haigh with an intimacy that immediately establishes their own long running and secure relationship – the film is a series of carefully structured conversations, many of which have the surface appearance of normality that hides far deeper emotional currents of angry, loss, grief, doubt and resentment. The film brilliantly taps into our own fears of having secrets kept from us, of being betrayed in some way – even if the betrayal is far more complex than expected.

And it understands completely that time here is not a healer. Instead, like some sort of monolithic ghost, Katya invades Kate and Geoff’s life. For Geoff it brings back a flood of feelings that he had long since repressed and pushed to one side. For Kate, these age old events have all the pang of newly discovered revelations. For them both Katya’s death may as well have been a few days not fifty years ago. Suddenly, her memory begins to permeate every inch of their home and every second of their (previously) happy marriage.

All this is played with expert compassion and humanity by Tom Courtenay and a possibly career-best Charlotte Rampling. Rampling (famously cheated of a BAFTA nomination like Courtenay but honoured with an Oscar nomination) mines untold depths of vulnerability, emotional doubt and insecurity that solidifies into barely acknowledged feelings of anger, pain and resentment. The final sequence of the film – set at that celebration party we were waiting for – rests on her brilliance at wordlessly reacting as she slowly processes the things that she has discovered in the last few days, and how they have changed her perception of both her, her husband and the decisions she and he have made in their lives.

Tom Courtenay is equally good as Geoff, becoming increasingly distant, withdrawn and anger, but (in that very British way) trying to pretend nothing has changed. He throws in flashes of carefree fun and moments of trying to jolly on, but it’s never really real. The two actors are also brilliant at suggesting the lived in comfortableness of a long term relationship, every scene of theirs having a careful short hand of intimacy. Two sublime performances.

The whole thing is brilliantly packaged by Andrew Haigh’s subtle and careful direction into something that haunts the imagination long after it finishes. It’s the sort of film you’ll be desperate to discuss with people as soon as it finishes, to try and understand and interpret what you’ve seen in it. That final sequence is a perfect pay off for everything you’ve seen before, a brilliant sequence of uncertainty and hesitation. Fabulous film making and a very good film.

Monday, 28 January 2019

Shadowlands (1993)

Debra Winger and Anthony Hopkins sublime in the moving Shadowlands

Director: Richard Attenborough
Cast: Anthony Hopkins (CS “Jack” Lewis), Debra Winger (Joy Davidman), Edward Hardwicke (Warnie Lewis), Joseph Mazzello (Douglas Gresham), John Woods (Dr Christopher Riley), Michael Denison (Harry Harrington), James Frain (Peter Whistler), Julian Fellowes (Desmond Arding), Peter Firth (Dr Craig), Roger Ashton-Griffiths (Dr Eddie Monk)

“We can’t have the happiness of yesterday without the pain of today. That’s the deal”. It’s a sentiment that runs through Shadowlands, a beautifully made, deeply heartfelt, incredibly moving tear-jerker based on the (largely) true story of how the man who invented Narnia, CS Lewis (Anthony Hopkins), fell in love very late in life with an American poet Joy Davidman (Debra Winger) only for her to succumb to cancer early in their marriage.

The story had a been a life-long investment from William Nicholson, who had developed the story first into a radio play, a TV drama (with Joss Ackland and a BAFTA winning Claire Bloom) and then a stage play (which won Nigel Hawthorne several awards in the lead role, including a Tony Award) and finally into this film. A wonderfully tender, profound and genuine exploration of the not only grief but the joy and delight that opening yourself up to love can bring you, Nicholson’s Oscar nominated script was brought to the screen by Richard Attenborough.

Looking back over Attenborough’s CV you immediately notice the vast majority of films he directed were massive, all-star, huge scope epics – A Bridge Too Far, Gandhi – which were as much triumphs of logistics and studio managements as they were displays of directing. Shadowlands is one of the smallest scale, most personal films he ever made – and it’s enough to make you wish that Attenborough had allowed himself to make more intimate chamber pieces like this. It’s a wonderful reminder, not only of how skilled he is at pacing and story-telling, but also what a sublime actor’s director he is. Dealing with material that in lesser hands could have become sentimental, Attenborough turns out a film that is realistic, tender, sad but also laced throughout with a warmth and (figurative and literal) Joy.

And of course the involvement of Attenborough also meant the involvement of his regular collaborator Anthony Hopkins. At the start of the 90s Hopkins was in such a run of form he could plausibly claim to be the best actor in the world. In all of this though, Shadowlands might be one of his finest accomplishments. Superbly detailed, perfectly restrained, gentle, tender, hugely vulnerable and intensily scared (under it all) of connecting with the wider world or allowing himself to feel genuine emotions, Hopkins’ CS Lewis is simply exceptional. With all the discipline of a great actor he never once goes for the easy option, but gently allows emotions to play behind his eyes (the eyes by the way that he can hardly bring himself to settle on other people until half way through the film). And those moments where he weeps – three times in the film, and each increasingly more emotional – are simply beautiful in every way from acting to filming.

Lewis is bashful and repressed, so it’s all the moving to see his face start to relax into excitement and joy when he spots Joy in the audience at a lecture he is giving, or him simply enjoying the intelligence and challenge that she brings to her conversation with him. Debra Winger as Joy Davidman matches Hopkins step-for-step, in a sublime performance of prickily New York attitudes at first out of touch in Oxford, but whose humanity shines through. It takes her time perhaps to feel the love Lewis does (but can’t admit too), but when she does start to feel more for Lewis, she has no patience for his repressed unwillingness to acknowledge them. On top of which, Winger is very funny in the role – she has little truck with the sheltered, clubbish snobbiness of some of Lewis’ friends and takes a wicked delight in shocking the stuffy, unchallenged intellectuals.

The chemistry between these two actors is sublime, and the slightly autumnal relationship between the two of them that builds feels wonderfully genuine. Nicholson’s script makes an astute examination of Lewis’ personality and Christianity. Throughout the film, we are brought back again and again to a lecture Lewis gives – with increasingly less and less disconnection – on why God allows suffering and pain in the world. Pleasingly Lewis’ faith in the film isn’t challenged – only his rather pleased-with-itself lack of doubt and his complacent lack of experience. Experiencing love and loss himself, makes him question the views he has held – and leads him to develop a richer, more genuine understanding of the world.

Which all makes the film sound very heavy, and it’s not. It’s a delightfully light done story that never once leans too hard on the tragedy. Instead it punctures several moments with touches of humour (much of it from Joy’s American clashes with high-table Britishness) and moments of sweet affection. The film gains a lot of balance from Edward Hardwicke’s delightful performance as Lewis’ Dr Watson-ish brother Warnie, a bluff ex-army officer turned academic who reveals himself over the course of a film to have a great deal of hidden love, affection and empathy. It also has a delightful performance from Joseph Mazzello as Douglas Gresham, a child performance that brilliantly avoids all cloying sweetness and feels very real as a shy, nervous boy dealing with his mother dying.

But then, Lewis is also a shy nervous boy (both he and Warnie never really got over the death of their mother as boys – a moment that both wordlessly acknowledge while observing Joy with her son at the hospital), and the film follows him becoming something more than that, a man wh has loved and lost and can deal with it. A neat subplot around James Frain’s difficult working-class student demonstrates his growing ability to relate and empathise with others. A large chunk of the film builds towards Lewis’ tearful outpouring of grief (a scene impossible to watch dry eyed), a reaction that seemed impossible in the opening moments.

But then that’s what the film is saying: We have to accept that the joy of loving people, the wonder and warmth that they bring to our life, will inevitably one day lead to us losing them. Allowing us to experience love and joy is counter balanced by the pain we will feel when they go. It’s a deal – and if it is a deal, it’s the price we pay for having our life enriched. Attenborough’s simply beautiful, romantic film covers all this gently and brilliantly: it’s a film to treasure and hold tight.