Review: BEAUTIFUL BOY (2019) [Leeds International Film Festival]

The latest Timothée Chalamet film was always going to be a big draw on the festival circuit, particularly at the Leeds International Film Festival, where Call Me By Your Name (2017) on the previous year’s programme, became a quick fan favourite. A sold-out audience for Beautiful Boy (2018) at the Vue at The Light might have been disappointed to not see another Steve Carell comedy (viewers of the haunting Foxcatcher in 2014 will know Carell can do much more than feel-good and gross-out), but instead got a well-meaning, but ultimately mediocre family drama.

Beautiful Boy, directed by Felix Van Groeningen, is a story of a father and son torn apart and is based on two memoirs from a father and son (David and Nic Sheff) dealing with the latter’s addiction to crystal meth. Nic is good-looking, bright, talented and heading for college, David is a successful Rolling Stone writer, with a lovely family, an artistic partner (Maura Tierney) and a distant ex-wife Amy Ryan (N.B. The women are woefully under-served here). The future is bright, but as the stark opening scene explains, Nic is a drug addict and David is powerless to help.

Drug addiction devastates people of all social classes and races. It isolates, and the fact that this film does too, is part of its failure. The non-linear narrative reduces the scenes to mere mini episodes that appear disjointed rather than strung together with any meaning, and there’s an overwhelming detached tone to the whole thing, that adds a strange, sun-kissed glow to horrible proceedings. The soundtrack is left to do most of the heavy lifting, but my favourite Massive Attack track ‘Protection’ is cruelly dropped into a scene like a clanger, telling you what and how to feel, and a terribly misjudged sex scene in a shower seemed to be gratuitously attempting to gain some ground on the lusty, good-looking, drug-fuelled antics of films like Drugstore Cowboy (1989) or Go (1999).

There’s a powerful message about the bonds of fathers and sons and the horrors of drug addiction relayed here, and there’s no doubting that Chalamet and Carell give equally good performances in this family drama, but they are both poorly served by a film that doesn’t seem to want to get too mucky when dealing with a dark and life-altering subject matter. No detail is given in the recoveries or relapses; the highs are few and the lows are scarce. The film could do some real good in showing the realities of the condition and the inadequacies of the provisions for getting clean, instead we just get lots of scenes of Carell typing away, looking writerly and somber.

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Review: COLETTE (2019)

I saw Colette at Hyde Park Picturehouse, followed by a lovely Q&A with its director, Leeds’ own Wash Westmoreland, who offered some insight into how he and his late partner Richard Glatzer first devised the script in the early 2000s, long before their award-winning film Still Alice (2014) drew critical acclaim. It was a sell-out night that also welcomed supporting cast members Elinor Tomlinson and Jake Graf to Leeds! On to the review…

Colette makes an interesting counterpart to The Wife (2018). The current resurgence in reclaiming female narratives and of those previously silenced, has been a slow one to ignite (especially if this year’s Oscar nominations are anything to go by), but like The Wife, Colette is a timely story, that takes a microscope to how a person’s achievements can be co-opted by others.

It’s star, Keira Knightley shines as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a French writer and all-round annoyingly-good-at-everything person who through an advantageous but alienating marriage to a good-for-nothing Parisian literary “entrepreneur” played by Dominic West, essentially ghost-writes his most successful novels – the ‘Claudine’ series under his non-de-plume ‘Willy’ in the late 19th century.

Dominic West is at his best when he plays creeps (his turn in TV’s Appropriate Adult still haunts) , and as Willy, his villainy is disguised in ruthless and temperamental business acumen, playing the ‘a man must cheat, it’s in his nature’ card repeatedly until Colette decides to have a little on-the-side fun for herself…with, shock horror, other ladies! Elinor Tomlinson and the marvellous Denise Gough offer a spectrum of same-sex exploration for Colette in much more permissive Parisian Belle Époque literary circles.

Together, Colette and Willy become something of a celebrity couple in Paris, with their titillating books flying off the shelves and everything from hair products to shoe polish being emblazoned with the Willy ‘brand’. As their relationship and career successes intertwine, Colette and Willy are engaged in a constant battle to keep the lid on their own desire for recognition. At one point, Willy locks Colette away to make her write another hit. Its shocking but not surprising to see the escalation of cruelty that kept Colette at the mercy of her husband and “mentor”.

Through breathtaking costuming changes (an intake of breath for that suit did occur!) , we could track Colette slowly unbuttoning the constraints of societal convention and stepping away from the ubiquity of Claudine that seemed to whip France up into a frenzy. Knightley has rarely seemed so comfortable in a role (many who know me will know that I have, wrongly, not always been the biggest Keira Knightley fan over the years), and this is certainly her most engaging performance since The Duchess (2008). As Colette, she expertly manages to portray her as the timid, lovelorn provincial new wife to Willy and later, the dynamic driving force behind her own creative freedom, both on stage and later, by challenging her claim to the Claudine books.

To that end, it did seem as if the film concludes just as her story was about to get truly interesting, the ongoing dispute to get her name on the works she toiled for was something that occupied much of her life. However, as an insight into how women’s work has been appropriated throughout the centuries, it is a worthy, beautifully filmed, document of defiance.

Review: THE FAVOURITE (2019)

A packed out screening of The Favourite, was enough to banish the New Year blues, as was the sound of the man next to me squirming as Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz touched lips. Greetings, 2019!

I am once again obliged to give thanks at the altar of Greek god Yorgos Lanthimos for another stellar cinematic experience. Building on the transforming strangeness of Dogtooth (2009) and the cult status of the nihilistic indie rom-com The Lobster (2015), comes The Favourite, a twisted but immensely fun historical romp like no other.

A beautifully realised proto-Barry Lyndon (1975) meets the chaotic comedic runaround In the Loop (2009), this political comedy of ill-manners plays with anarchy like an out-of-tune harpsichord. Bewigged and bosom-filled, surprises also lay in store as unexpected heart-wrenching pathos is also achieved, thanks to a barnstorming performance from Olivia Colman as Queen Anne.

Set in the court of the ill-equipped (both in health and in political savvy) Queen Anne during a messy war with France (which one, I am never quite sure, and is increasingly irrelevant as the film goes on), the women lead the regal procession of good performances here, Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone dance a matriarchal jig of schemes, manipulation and seduction (basically, all the good stuff) to curry favour with the other.

Colman, incapable of being bad in anything, including an old AA advert, is stomach-churningly monstrous yet sympathetic, a lifetime of grief and miscarriages leaving a wretched shell behind that seeks solace in her “children” – 17 bunnies – and controlled dependency with childhood friend and lover Lady Marlborough, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz).

The deplorable court of Queen Anne is largely controlled by Lady Sarah. Wickedly astute, possessive and playing with courtisans and politicians like chewtoys, Weisz strides about, cocksure in magnificent Sandy Powell costumes that expertly reflect her ability to socially code-switch from devoted wife, political puppet-master and rakish lover.

In comes a scene-stealing Stone as the down-on-her-luck evil genius Abigail, Sarah’s cousin and now servant in the queen’s residence. Her canny knack at worming her way into the affections of the monarch – “I like it when she puts her tongue inside me” *cue man next to me squirming x1000* – sets off a chain of petty and agile one-upmanship between the cousins.

This is Lanthimos’s most sprightly film, following the unknowable The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), it harks back to some of the more darkly acerbic elements in The
Lobster, where he first worked with Colman and Weisz. He continues a fascination with the constraints of social and human interaction, weaponising the absurd with razor-sharp precision. Transport this story to a modern day office setting or to Ancient Rome, and the power struggles, the pettiness and class issues would remain rampant. Strange, off-kilter camera angles, ultra wide fisheye shots distort the setting, zooming in on the polarised isolated environment, as if we’re viewing the world via a secret nanny cam left in the corner of the room.

Everyone in this creation is removed from reality, exempt from serious historical analysis that is neither the point not the centre of this film. Talk of a French invasion and a farmer revolt is regarded in the abstract and the queen’s sense of divinity is shattered in the very first scenes – “You look like a badger”. The abundantly grotesque characters wield power with as much fervour as impunity, and as the machinations verge on the deadly, we’re luckily never too far away from a solid laugh to remind us as the silliness of it all. Brilliant stuff.

Review: THE OLD MAN & THE GUN (2018)

It was an immense privilege to see what could be Robert Redford’s final film on the big screen at LIFF 2018. Though I’ve always been more of a Paul Newman kinda gal, films like Barefoot In the Park (1967), Out of Africa (1985) and All the President’s Men (1976) played a huge part in my movie education while growing up. He’s always been someone that’s there, an actor you could always rely on. Redford has maintained an irresistible charm that has seen him through even the most throwaway fare (looking at you The Horse Whisperer (1998)…still love you though xoxo)  

His final project then The Old Man and The Gun (2018) by surprisingly, A Ghost Story (2017)’s  David Lowery, is accessible fare and loosely based on a 2003 long article in The New Yorker on the real life ‘old man’. The film is a off-kilter tale of Forrest Tucker’s insatiable desire to rob banks. But this is no Point Break (1991) mind, the well-dressed Forrest (Redford) simply walks into a small town bank in the 1960s and 70s, befuddles the cashier or bank manager with a tip of his hat, and walks out with a case full of money – like a Redford-style dangerously charming bandit of old.

In its best moments it reminded me of another Redford film, the oft-forgotten The Electric Horseman (1979). Though this time, the political commentary is nearly non-existent in TOMATG (as no one is calling it), it is an easy slice of American apple pie served with a folksy tale of life on the edges of American society, and set in a time when Bonnie and Clyde were still fancifully regarded as home-grown daredevils that couldn’t resist the pull of the open road or each other.

It was a joy to witness Sissy Spacek as Jewel, a largely sidelined but prepossessing as a woman whom Tucker meets as he tries to commandeer her car for a getaway. The frame glowed in Spacek’s presence, and as I had recently re-watched Carrie (1976), it was a hoot to see two actors who occupied to completely different schools of 1970s filmmaking come together on screen. Jewel is left to wonder about the man who flits in and out of her life with little care or honesty, and as romance blossoms, you can’t help but wonder if Forrest is just doing this same routine with every widowed rancher he finds in every town. 

The film doesn’t linger long on Forrest’s criminality, nor his appetite for emotional destruction though, and a cameo from Elisabeth Moss as his long-abandoned daughter is largely wasted. The law enforcement hot on his tale (headed by Lowery regular and drawl connoisseur, Casey Afleck) seem almost mildly in awe of Forrest and his expert crew (Donald Glover and an on-form Tom Waits), dubbed ‘The Over-The-Hill Gang’s’ antics. 

Footage from Redford’s long filmography is adoringly spliced in for a nostalgic montage sequence of daring prison escapes that is fun to see unfold, and remind ourselves just how alarmingly good looking Redford was (and talented, cough, of course). Redford elevates Forrest Tucker to folk tale hero and has the jawline for it too. 

TOMATG works best as an easy viewing, chortle-heavy heist movie and serves as a fitting swansong to a Hollywood legend. Though I didn’t see his acting chops being particularly tested, for anyone new to his career, it is a satisfying ‘best of’ reel. 

Review: THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER (2018) [Leeds International Film Festival]

Maggie Gyllenhaal is one of a handful of actors that can compel me to go see a film simply by virtue of their name alone. Such is her mercurial talent and on-screen charisma, whether its playing the timid but sexually-awakened titular character in Secretary (2002) or a commanding but conflicted peer in The Honourable Woman (2014), Gyllenhaal has carved out a niche for playing interesting and withholding characters both on TV and in cinema. Her draw then, extended to yet another title role, this time The Kindergarten Teacher, written and directed by Sara Colangelo. 

Due to the increasingly intense nature of the story, I’ll keep the synopsis brief: Gyllenhaal plays Lisa, an unfulfilled teacher begins to claim the spontaneous poems spouted by a young pupil in her class as her own for her poetry class. It’s a simple but intriguing set-up, and being based on a 2014 Israeli film of the same name, it has a lot to do to make the remake worthwhile.

Five year-old Jimmy, played by Parker Sevak is also an impressive but unnerving presence. Much like his character, Parker seems unaware of his talent, displaying a placid exterior but perhaps slightly weary of his teacher’s unwarranted attentions. As Lisa becomes more and more compromised, we’re left feeling concerned, perhaps even terrified, for the genius child’s welfare. I can’t remember feeling more scared during a swimming scene since Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Almost immediately, however, you are lulled into the narrative, and the indie touch to the domestic and school scenes are matter of fact, unshowy and believable, even if the teenage children are merely ciphers to demonstrate the generational stalemate that adds to Lisa’s unsatisfied life. Almost all of Gyllenhaal’s lead performances could be classed as a career high, but as the alarmingly determined Lisa, we are never on safe footing, but party to a performance that shakes with ruinous mid-life frustration. A fellow film writer, Rhys Handley termed this as “Maggie Gyllenhaal’s own Taxi Driver” and I couldn’t have summed it up better. Damn. 

Yet again another masterclass from Gyllenhaal, reaffirming her position as one of the boldest actors out there. If you can handle having your stomach in knots for pretty much most of the third act, then give The Kindergarten Teacher a go. 

Review: SUSPIRIA (2018) [Leeds International Film Festival]

Viewed at Hyde Park Picture House as part of #LIFF2018.

It would be remiss of me to not mention that Suspiria is gory. While the original poured deep red colours into its set design and cinematography, the gushing blood red in this incantation of Suspiria are reserved only for the acts of body horror that occur. The violent body transformations are shocking and nauseating, and dreamlike fast cuts of disturbing imagery have a trance-like, subliminal power. Certain scenes will last for a long time in the memory, that’s for sure.

Welcome to Luca Guadagnino’s reimagining of Suspiria, a 30-year ambition finally realised and hot off the heels of his evocative  2017 sun-drenched tale, Call Me By Your Name. A switch to horror and a ‘remake’ of a Dario Argento classic befuddled many, but with a stellar cast, an updated but equally unforgiving plot and flashes of gore, Suspiria tantalises and mystifies in equal measure once again.

Set in Berlin in 1977 at the prestigious Markos Company dance school, Tilda Swinton is Madame Blanc, the austere but brilliant principal who is immediately drawn to new American student, Dakota Johnson’s Susie Bannion. As Guadagnino has been keen to point, Swinton also plays Lutz Ebersdorf as Dr. Josef Klemperer, a kindly psychiatrist that is more or less the emotional centre of the film.

Chloë Grace Moretz’s cameo as Patricia looms large over the opening acts, a young student targeted by the teachers within their secret coven, but determined to escape their grasp. Johnson, previously seen in Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash (2015) alongside Swinton, is mesmeric as Susie, unknowable and seeming naive to the real trade of the Markos Company. Johnson and Swinton’s scenes together, even those as they stare at one another within a mirrored rehearsal room or appear to be talking without speaking across a crowded restaurant, are electrifying.

As points of view shift, the well-worn narrative of ‘an American in a strange country’ is left behind as Susie soon becomes a dancing conduit for the coven’s sadistic spells. Contorting, tribal dancing are never too far away from seeming like demonic possession and the camera, and Madame Blanc’s gaze, lingers on Susie’s unexpectedly libidinous movements. We are left to wonder if this is just her dancing style or has her time at the Markos Company transformed her already?

A history of the coven’s acts are hidden deep in the bowels (wrong choice of words there) of the school, horrific antiquities and weapons of choice such as the swift metal hooks that swipe as Thom Yorke’s haunting soundtrack swells. Berlin in 1977, the backdrop of the film seen on TVs or echoed through a radio, is a turbulent time that saw the hijacking of a plane and kidnappings by the Red Army Faction. The real world events act as a counterpoint to supernatural violence and its struggles for supremacy. Female autonomy, expressed through cruelty and occultism subterfuge, is attainable, if only as a result of atrocity and suppression. Taking place in a decade that rode the wave of radical feminism and when Germany continued to grapple with its position as a post-war nation, the coven’s secrets mirror the setting’s overwhelming struggle for normalcy. The coven’s power is an affirmation of the period’s feminist movement operating on the fringes of mainstream society.

The abuse of power is an overwhelming force throughout Suspiria, from the long-lasting generational guilt and Vergangenheitsbewältigung, to the coven’s secret manipulation and disposal of unsuspecting students. The school’s faculty are like a rubber band, stretching and contorting between the need for secrecy and culpability. As Susie, Patricia, Sam and Dr Klemperer become further entangled in the dance school/coven’s acts, the more they become manipulated, enlightened and repulsed by the coven’s violent tyranny.

A warped, unsettling and nihilistic film that slips from grasp just a handle on it seems within reach, Suspiria is likely to frustrate as many as it is devilishly delights. Immaculately directed and designed, Guadagnino shows once again why he is a contemporary master at period detail and sensuality on screen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: THE HATE U GIVE (2018)

“I’m very aware of the fact that the young people I write for today, will be politicians with Twitter accounts tomorrow. I can’t do anything about the current politicians with Twitter accounts, but if I can affect them and I can reach them right now, then maybe, just maybe, 10, 20, 30 years from now, we won’t have to say ‘Black Lives Matter’, it’ll be understood.” 

So said Angie Thomas, the writer of the source material at the heart of George Tillman Jr.’s adaptation of The Hate U Give, at its premiere at the BFI London Film Festival 2018. The Hate U Give (2018) is hopefully having a wider impact than Angie currently imagines right now. Released before the US goes to the polls for the midterm elections, probably the most important and decisive election in recent years, The Hate U Give feels like a rallying call for young and old alike, transcending its YA bracket and being both an important text and film for our times.

Witnessing the murder of her childhood friend by a police officer, Starr Carter (the incredible Amandla Stenberg) is catapulted into the centre of events that unveil the disharmony and inequality of her surroundings, from her predominately black local area to the privileged white majority private school she attends in the next town over. Starr takes us through her daily routine of code switching at the opening of the film, all the while juggling a new relationship with her well-meaning if slightly misguided white boyfriend and formative friendships.

Daunting themes are tackled deftly throughout and handled with such maturity that you are often left breathless at the close of vital scenes or conversations. Breaking the boundaries of the typical ‘teen movie’ genre, a label that does not portray the varied subjects and issues that a film with teenage protagonists can and ought to depict (note The Miseducation of Cameron Post this summer), The Hate U Give is a powerful and an oftentimes difficult watch, succeeding in not shying away from the experience of being a person of colour in America, at any age. The film starts as Starr and her siblings are being instructed how to behave when stopped by police by their authoritarian but loving father, played by Russell Hornsby. A shocking but unsurprising exchange that informs the rest of the film at key, harrowing points.

The narrative remains firmly with the family, switching from Starr’s witty and insightful voiceover to the parents’ conflicted discussions, sometimes heard by Starr or watched from afar as she sees those around her remain beholden to a menacing local druglord, played by Anthony Mackie. The Hate U Give lingers on the struggles of living with and moving on from the mistakes of generations past, and as Starr grapples with high school life, her conflicting identities, and a new political and moral awakening in the harshest of circumstances, the Carter family are a compelling unit that offer laughs, warmth and solidarity throughout.

The “politicians with Twitter accounts” of tomorrow are the activists of today and as  events unfold, Starr is given an uncompromising view of a broken, divided America. Over the course of the film, she is tasked with picking up the pieces, eventually turning to activism when the system fails her community, leading into the final few scenes that will stay with the viewer and inspire many. A radical teen movie for our troubled times, I recommend you take the time to see this gem.

 

 

 

Review: HALLOWEEN (2018)

If you have been listening to the hit podcast My Favorite Murder, you might be a tad more clued up on the horrors of serial killers lately than most, and you will know that serial killers were pretty prolific in the 1970s – operating slap-bang in the Vietnam War, before the Cold War preoccupied 1980s and the ‘satanic panic’ of the decade. The period informed the horror monsters of cinema from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) to Friday the 13th (1980).

So it’s easy to see why John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) itched at the fears of so many upon its release. Now 40 years later, are these fears still terror-inducing? As one character in the latest reboot-sequel, Halloween (2018) says, there are so many more scary things to be afraid of these days, why focus on a long-imprisoned middle-aged serial killer wearing a (warped William Shatner) mask?

But as the new instalment, directed by David Gordon Green, posits, the societal fear might have changed, but the bogeyman of trauma will still haunt. This rings true in a world that is seemingly constantly having to cope with the reveal of past and hidden crime, from the abuses of the casting couch, a would-be senator’s college frat parties and most public spheres across the spectrum. Crimes can be buried, perpetrators might even be caught, but the slate is rarely wiped of the vivid trauma that will affect whole lives and communities. This is part of the reason why Halloween unexpectedly gets to be a relevant tale for our times. The slow-moving man in a mask might induce the odd titter from modern viewers of the original, but Michael Myers works as a reincarnated spectre of our world-weary anxiety.

Jamie Lee Curtis, one of the original ‘final girls’, is finally given an opportunity to put demons to rest, namely Myers, who first murdered her friends four decades earlier in 1978. The quiet, bookish 17 year-old Laurie has transformed into a hard, jacked-up action woman in the intervening years, isolating her family in the process. The film demonstrates how Laurie has coped, for better or worse, choosing life as a self-created recluse in her fortress-like compound.

Laurie’s strained relationship with her family, namely her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter (Andi Matichak), is excellently depicted, hinting at a childhood scarred by a mother’s maniacal determination to better equip her family to eliminate invading evil. One scene where Laurie implores Karen to take hold of a gun for her own familial home’s protection is a particularly telling moment, saying plenty about the cognitive dissonance that occurs in the people of Haddonfield, Illinois when seeking revenge on a murderer…with murder.

Halloween manages to be a satisfying generational story as well as a truly blood-splattering gorefest, upping the scares of Carpenter’s original for a modern audience without slipping into lazy gratuitousness. The score, also updated by Carpenter himself, is more lavish, much like the rest of the film (the Halloween of 1978 was made on a shoestring and the gloriously understated Carpenter always stated he was the cheapest composer he could afford). The same haunting piano stabs once again, but this time with added modern synths, playing ominously over the nostalgic opening credits.

After the countless sequels and reboots that Halloween inspired (when even WAS Halloween III: Season of the Witch, though!?), David Gordon Green, Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley managed to make a continuation worth telling, a rare feat in Sequel City, Hollywood. It does descend into the well-worn horror tropes, much of them first conceived in the first Halloween, but manage to play out as affectionate nods rather than tired rehashes.

Just a final note to say what a thrill it is to have Jamie Lee Curtis headlining a movie again. She really gave her all to this role and it shows. Long live the mature female lead and the final girl. Now thanks to Halloween (2018), that’s the same thing.

 

 

 

Review: THE WIFE (2018)

A lesser known quote from Maryon Pearson goes: “Behind every successful man, there stands a surprised woman.” In The Wife (2018), Glenn Close is anything but surprised as the titular spouse of an American writer Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), who wakes up to the news that his has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

As the Nobel circus descends on the Castleman clan’s seemingly deferential Connecticut set of admirers and family and whisks them off to Stockholm, Close’s Joan is a myriad of emotions, all serenely displayed on her icon-making expressive face. At times she is demur and contemplative, and at others, cracking with bridled trauma and resentment. Jonathan Pryce plays the typical Great American Writer type and charming elder statesmen of literature, a sort of Philip Roth meets Alan Alda, still trying to seduce the impressed ingenue but now also worrying about the amount of butter in his diet. He is erring on the side of simpering in his instance that it is his wife’s support that allowed his career to flourish, and its just off-kilter enough to want to peel back the layers to discover more about this marriage.

And peel it back it does, based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer, a writer ripe for adaptation and directed by Björn Runge, the action goes back to 1950s to see the genesis of their relationship, initially as college professor and pupil. Close’s daughter Annie Maud Stark impresses as the younger Joan, determined in her pursuit of a writing career despite abrupt advice to give up her dream in a male-dominated era: “Don’t ever think you’ll make them listen” Elizabeth McGovern’s resigned author tells her – a disturbingly relevant situation that could still play out today.

At times Joe’s ego infuses the stifling family unit, irritating their overshadowed and under-worked son, David (Max Irons), and causing Joan to constantly be in the role of subjugation. The direction is unshowy, the camera at all times drawn to Close, even as the rest of the cast steps up to her mark, especially in the two-handed scenes. Christian Slater appears to put his trademark Jack Nicholson smarm to work as a ruthless writer desperate to write Joseph Castleman’s biography, letting neither fact nor fiction get in the way.

As can be expected, there is more going on under the surface than I can give away, but as events unfold and Joe gets closer and closer to receiving the Nobel Medal, now the film’s very own MacGuffin, the film remains focused on woman’s silent role in male achievements. Close says at crucial juncture “I am a kingmaker”, the real meaning of this statement still reverberating. In a climate where women seem unable make their voices heard, it’s a telling moment that will resonate.

Review: THE LITTLE STRANGER (2018)

Stifled characters imprisoned in a crumbing country estate battle demons both seemingly imaginary and mental in director Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger.

The penultimate novel in Waters’ oeuvre and a move away from the hidden queer stories in period Britain, The Little Stranger is a more radical take on The Turn of the Screw-esque haunted house (see also: haunted family, or nothing at all?) stories popularised in throughout early to mid-20th century. A class-driven family drama set in a restrictive post-war Midlands during political and social upheaval, literary fans were riveted by the evocative ambiguity of the storytelling, if not delighted with the move away from what has now become Waters’ trademark of ‘lesbian historic romances’.

Dysfunctional aristocratic family, the Ayres: Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling and Will Poulter encounter Dr. Faraday, played by Domhnall Gleeson, an aspiring provincial doctor haunted by his repulsion of his own class position and childhood memories of Hundreds Hall, the Warwickshire estate, in its heyday. His ‘in’ with the Ayres family is his faltering and nervous exchanges with Caroline Ayres, played by an expertly cast Ruth Wilson, who is helpless in her Sisyphean task to repair the exposing cracks of the family’s reduced circumstances. Same goes for Will Poulter,  as Caroline’s veteran brother Roderick, physically and emotionally ravaged by service in the Second World War while the serene Charlotte Rampling is the coldy officious Mrs Ayres, a woman preoccupied in longstanding grief. The house decaying around them serves as a living tool of torment for each of the major players, from the admiring outsider to the intelligent but “unfortunate” Caroline.

Sure to frustrate the non-book readers who will not have been party to Waters’ trademark vivid scene-setting and characterisation, Abrahamson attempts to make up for this with sumptuous production design and cinematography choices. Certain moments are so crisp in beaming sunlight while others are murky and gloomy as the characters creak around the dilapidated family property that is as much oppressive as it is impressive.

I personally loved The Little Stranger’s more politicised backdrop, one oft-forgotten in favour of more patriotic mid-century stories that are ripe for historic writers. The advent of the NHS and a housing estate on the edge of the Hundreds estate is just as horrifying to the characters as the supposed presence of a poltergeist, expressing a societal anxiety of monetary upheaval and the destruction of the upper classes as they knew it.

Much like the original text, Abrahamson’s cinematic retelling of The Little Stranger (2018) is a claustrophobic and at times, grueling chamber piece, a classic psychological interplay that the director  showed considerable talent in handling while adapting Emma Donoghue’s Room for the screen. Marketing the film as an horror-inflected ghost story is bound to confuse those expecting some “quiet-quiet-bang” moments that have suffused the genre lately, but The Little Stranger does attempt to truly unsettle in its latter half, even if it takes a while to get there.

“It’s a curious, wanting thing”: Sarah Waters on screen (so far)

Tipping the Velvet

If you’ve ever seen Tipping the Velvet (2002) or read the novel, there’s a good chance it’s seared in your memory (it certainly was on mine, discovered as a secretive sixth form read). Outrageous, camp, brave and filled with vaudeville charm, the scope and scale of the story had the hallmarks of a Victorian romp. It emerged so fully formed into book lovers’ and queer lives that it was almost impossible to imagine that it was someone’s debut novel. It demanded attention, and attention it got.

Starring Keeley Hawes, the doyenne of Spooks at the time (and some really cool music videos for 90s faves Suede and James) and Rachael Stirling, shocked Daily Mail readers and delighted many. I’m still in a bit of disbelief that the BBC took a chance on this story, and for not compromising on some of the more eyebrow-raising aspects. Screenwriter Andrew Davies, no stranger to adapting period stories to the screen, can most certainly relied upon to emphasize the more sensational aspects of a story. The section that includes the dastardly Diana Letherby (Anna Chancellor) will never not be thrilling.

Watch out for a small role for future Sarah Waters’ lead, Sally Hawkins too!

Fingersmith

With Waters’ third novel, Fingersmith, praise was rightly showered on the author for this ambitious tale of betrayal, love and greed, once again set in Victorian England.

The bravery to upend the narrative of a significant chunk of the novel will remain a literary ‘water-cooler’ moment for many, and the TV adaptation in 2005 had the unenviable task of recreating that shock factor on screen. Even Hitchcock might have struggled with such a twist! Leads Sally Hawkins and Elaine Cassidy have incredible chemistry and are individually able to convincingly convey facades of naivety and cunning at various points of the story, vital for making the highly charged plot seem remotely plausible.

That challenge neither daunted lauded Korean director Park Chan-wook, taking the source material as a major inspiration for his latest film The Handmaiden (2016), which keeps all of the clever tonal and plot shifts intact, despite relocating the setting to Japanese-occupied 1930s Korea.

Affinity

Waters’ second literary outing is perhaps less-remembered for its televisual counterpart, but is worth a watch for completists all the same.  Affinity is a hearty nod to Wilkie Collins that won Waters the Somerset Maugham Prize in 1999, and the TV adaptation aired on ITV at Christmas nine years later. Once again with an adapted screenplay by Andrew Davies, Affinity (2008) a thriller set during a time when Victorian spiritualism was both feared as a dangerous view into other worlds as well as merely a fun palour game jaunt.

Though atmospheric and moody and lavished with a £2 million budget (quite a lot in the telly days before the likes of Game of Thrones),  Affinity doesn’t give viewers the time to really get to know the two characters – Anna Madeley (Margaret) and Zoe Tapper (Selina) – so much so that when the famous Waters’ twists take their turns, they don’t really feel like the discombobulating rug pull they did in the novel.

The Night Watch

The Night Watch (2006), which on the whole I believe was poorly served by the constraints of a feature length format and running time, was impeccably cast once again, starring some of the most high profile British actors working today,  including Jodie Whittaker and Claire Foy. Anna Maxwell Martin, who can never be accused of choosing ‘safe’ roles, is a swaggering ghostly figure haunting the streets of postwar London.

Sarah Waters’ once again experiments with the form, telling a story at the end and working its way back, and in the visual form it’s a striking and unnerving device to see unfold. The period is impeccably recreated, a struggle as the adaptation had the difficulty of depicting London before and after the Blitz, but on the whole succeeds in demonstrating how the ravages of war obliterated a city and relationships within it.