Monthly Archives: January 2012

Review – Coriolanus (15) [2012]

Star Rating: 4/5

<<guest review by KJF>>

William Shakespeare and the filmed medium have an uneasy relationship. Over the years many film-makers have attempted to bring his plays to the silver screen but not all have been successful, with some versions feeling staid and flat. For all the glories of Laurence Olivier’s trilogy of adaptations, in more recent years there have been Kenneth Branagh’s Love Labour’s Lost (2000) and As You like it (2006), which were both poorly received. Ralph’s Fiennes’ Coriolanus bucks the trend, providing an inventive, violent and gripping take on one of the Bard’s later tragedies.

Coriolanus, blood-soaked, in the heat of battle.

The original play is set in the ancient world, during one of the Roman Republic’s endless wars against a neighbouring tribe. Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes – Schindler’s List, Harry Potter VII(ii), Wrath of the Titans), is Rome’s greatest general. Having just scored a bloody victory against the rebellious Volscians, he returns to his home city and is given the honorific name ‘Coriolanus’, in recognition of his battle prowess at the Volscian city of Corioles. At Rome the populace are starving due to a grain shortage. He tends to hold the people in contempt, and when his election to the consulship collapses, and he gets exiled, the disgruntled general defects to the Volcians and plots his revenge.

Here the story is updated to a modern Balkan setting which is very effective, recalling the wars in the 1990s following the collapse of Yugoslavia. The battles between Romans and Volscians are fought on bomb blasted streets, strewn with the wrecks of cars and buildings with terrified civilians being caught in the crossfire-scenes so reminiscent of modern urban warfare. The bleak, withered, Balkan landscape is a particularly effective back-drop to the bleakness of Coriolanus’ fate in the latter part of the film.

Fiennes in directing mode with Gerard Butler, playing Tullus Aufidius

All the events of the story are told through the prism of rolling news footage, with newscasters and pundits (naturally) spinning everything. (Even Jon Snow gets a look in!) When the grain protests in Rome are depicted, this allows for some fortuitous contemporary resonance as we cannot but think of the Arab Uprisings, particularly all the protesters massing on Tahrir Square. That all the political debating on show is done in the glare of television cameras instantly broadcasting into countless households feels particularly right. In Republican Rome, many political debates were held in public in the Forum.

Fiennes is following in the grand tradition of both Olivier and Branagh as both actor-director, and this is very much his film. The camera likes to linger on his battle-scarred, shaven, bullet-shaped head, which in the heat of battle gets spattered in blood. One needs no convincing that this is a serious warrior. When faced with dealing the people of Rome he so despises, his icy contempt for them is tangible. Fiennes is supported by a fine cast. Vanessa Redgrave (Mary, Queen of Scots, Letters to Juliet, Song For Marion) as Volumnia, Coriolanus’ formidable mother, is truly magnificent. She is a civilian but her martial bearing and control she exudes over her son is emphasised by the military dress she mostly wears. The seemingly ubiquitous Jessica Chastain (The Help, Take Shelter, Zero Dark Thirty) acquits herself admirably as the other woman in Coriolanus’ life, his doting wife, Virgilia. Gerard Butler (300, P.S. I Love You, London Has Fallen) plays a brooding Tullus Aufidius, the leader of the Volscians and nemesis of Coriolanus. There is, perhaps inescapably a touch of Leonidas about his performance but he very much proves the match and the mirror to the Roman general. The Roman politicos here are a conniving bunch, all decked out in slick, expensive suits and Brian Cox (Troy, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dog Fight) brings much style to his portrayal of the loquacious, fawning senator Menenius Agrippa, supporter of Coriolanus’ family.

Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) pleading with Coriolanus not to go back to war.

The faults with the film reflect back to the play itself. Coriolanus is the most unsympathetic of Shakespearean ‘heroes.’ He is no Hamlet or King Lear to draw much pathos. We rarely see behind his front of arrogance and hauteur and his loathing of people power, to what makes him a human being. The play itself can be heavy-going at points, punctuated with very long-winded speeches. Thankfully here, Fiennes in collaboration with his screenwriter, John Logan, has done some merciful pruning, to make everything more palatable.

Thus, Fiennes should be commended for bringing a less popular and less well-known Shakespearean play to a much wider audience. Indeed the vigour and imagination on display makes the film a rewarding and thought-provoking experience.

KJF

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Review – Shame (18) [2012]

Star Rating: 3/5

Few would consider having an active sex-life to be a bad thing. But what if one were to suffer from a compulsive need for sex? Such a problem exists in society. Shame, despite its faults and gloominess, illustrates the torment that this syndrome can cause people.

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) eying up a girl on the train like a predator.

The film centres round Brandon (Michael Fassbender – 300, X-Men: First Class, Prometheus), a high-flying manager or executive (in a job that is not defined), who cannot control his urge for sex. In his nice, relatively up-market flat in New York City, he hires prostitutes/escorts or watches pornography endlessly. At work, he watches pornography (to the extent of having his hard-drive removed because it’s filled with viruses) before going to the bathroom to masturbate. Every woman he sets eyes upon is a potential victim of his insatiable lust.

Yet, none of this appears to make Brandon any happier. Soon his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan – An Education, Wall Street II: Money Never Sleeps, Suffragette) comes to stay at his apartment, bringing out the worst in his frustrations and temper.

Shame’s plot is simple, but morbid. The mental torture that Brandon suffers from is excruciating (despite having an addiction that many would consider to be pleasurable). Unlike with Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, played by Ben Barnes in the 2009 film, there is no enjoyment in sex for Brandon (or deal with the devil for that matter). Sex is just a constant, agonising thirst that can never be quenched. The threesome scene near the end reveals the degree of pain this addiction causes him. (Although, how Brandon maintains his stamina for so much sex is quite remarkable. One wonders if there are enough hours in the day for work, exercise and all of that sex.)

Sissy (Carey Mulligan) sitting in her brother’s apartment in need of attention. That’s when she notices her brother’s laptop…

Brandon’s drug-like compulsion for sex and pornography has also come to seemingly destroy any chance of him having a relationship too. When he tries one with Marianne (Nicole Beharie – American Violet, The Express, The Last Fall), a pretty, young work-mate, he finds himself incapable. This is because the idea of love in sex has become an anathema to him.

Yet, apart from Brandon’s uncontrollable lust, Shame’s storyline loses direction quickly. This makes the film’s 101 minutes seem (frustratingly) like it will go on indefinitely. The plot also fails to explain Brandon’s background, as well as badly under-developing his relationships with his messed-up, needy sister; with his amiable and attractive fellow employee; and with his married, but embarrassingly desperate boss, David (James Badge Dale – 24: Day 3, The Departed, The Grey).

If the storyline (even with the explicit sex scenes) doesn’t hold the audience’s attention, Michael Fassbender’s performance certainly will. Fassbender delivers an excellent display that is as intense as it is brave and consistent. His green eyes stare at women like a hawk-bird to its prey. They also hint at an anger and pain, a deep shame, buried within Brandon that he refuses to recognise or counter. Does he do this because his syndrome is apparently humiliating and a taboo subject in society?

Fassbender might be the stand-out performer of the movie, but none of the supporting cast play badly. Carey Mulligan again gives a solid account of herself. She has a very different character here to the ones she played in Wall Street II: Money Never Sleeps and Never Let Me Go. Nonetheless, she demonstrates that she can play a whiny, emotionally-deficient, unstable girl, craving affection, with equal plausibility. Similarly, despite their short and limited roles, neither Nicole Beharie nor James Badge Dale damage their reputations with their performances in Shame.

Brandon out with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), seemingly enjoying her company. But has he told her about his compulsive disorder?

The impressiveness of the acting is enhanced when considering that director Steve McQueen (Hunger, 12 Years A Slave) takes long-held shots for much of the film. Many of the scenes have no breaks or changes in camera angles. This style of filming demands immense concentration from the actors. That they make their acts look natural is credible and significant.

McQueen’s other noticeable technique in Shame is to use silence and little music to ram home to viewers Brandon’s loneliness and internal agony. When McQueen does adopt music, it is generally the main soundtrack which is comprised of long-held notes by stringy instruments and a subtle fast-beat. The main theme tune may lack Requiem For A Dream’s soundtrack’s feel of a crisis that is spiralling out of control, but it helps to compound Brandon’s lack of self-worth and his sense of self-hatred.

Over-all, Shame passably explores a problem that is not discussed much or recognised in present-day society. (After-all, one might think, how could having sex regularly be the cause of a major psychological disorder? It should be the other way round, right?) Shame has its deficiencies, it might appear directionless, and it might make for depressing viewing. Nevertheless, Michael Fassbender’s brilliant and courageous performance forces one to empathise with Brandon’s suffering and self-harm, as well as obliges one to appreciate what the syndrome can do to people in general.

PG’s Tips

Review – The Iron Lady (12a) [2012]

Star Rating: 3/5

Dementia is a cruel infliction that eats away at what an individual once was. (Lady) Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister 1979-90, was a formidable and highly intelligent woman in her day. Yet, rather than focus on her prime, The Iron Lady highlights the crippling effects that the illness has had on Lady Thatcher in her more recent years.

‘Young Margaret’ (Alexandra Roach) standing for election in Dartford (in 1951). She was then the only female Conservative candidate across the country.

The film is about Lady Thatcher (when young played by Alexandra Roach – Private Peaceful; when middle-aged and old played by Meryl Streep – Sophie’s Choice, The Devil Wears Prada, Suffragette), elderly and suffering from delusions and dementia, glimpsing back, at random, at the happy and distressing moments of her life, before she attends the ceremony of the unveiling of her portrait at the Prime Minister’s house.

The movie’s plot is simple, but is not necessarily easy to follow. This is because whenever Lady Thatcher looks back into the past, she does not do so in chronologically and there is nothing to inform viewers of the year they’re watching. Even for those who are historically fine-tuned, this can be confusing. Factually, The Iron Lady is generally accurate; yet, there are several brushes of artistic license in the movie, such as the timing of Denis Thatcher’s (when young played by Harry Lloyd – Jane Eyre, A Game of Thrones, Junk; when old played by Jim Broadbent – Gangs of New York, Harry Potter VI & VII(ii), Cloud Atlas) proposal.

Thatcher, as Prime Minister, in a cabinet meeting, telling a colleague that it is not his time to speak.

More than anything, the storyline’s approach undermines Lady Thatcher. It undermines her as a person, her ideology (the idea that the individual should not depend upon the state and that he/she should determine his/her destiny), and all that she did for the country and for women across the world. First, at 105 minutes, The Iron Lady is too short, since more time was needed for director Phyllida Lloyd (Mama Mia!, Macbeth) to have adequately visualised Thatcher’s life before and after she became a politician. Second, for a woman who sacrificed so much for politics, the film stresses astoundingly little on Thatcher’s rise to the premiership, as well as her time in ten Downing Street and her fall from office. That much of her time in office in the movie is dominated by her hardline policies towards cutting public spending; beating back rioters; and the wars against Argentina, over the Falkland Islands, and the IRA (terrorism), has a familiar chime, as if Ms. Lloyd was trying to (not-so-subtly) force her own views of the current Coalition government upon viewers. Third, to have Lady Thatcher remembering her life via flashbacks, among delusions of her late husband was callous and insensitive; especially, as the former Prime Minister is still alive. If anything, it makes even those who despise Lady Thatcher pity her. (Whoever would have thought that the die-hards on the Left would feel sympathy for Thatcher?)

Irrespective of the plot, there is an exceptional performance from Meryl Streep, which makes The Iron Lady worth watching in and of itself. Throughout the movie, Streep seemingly morphs into Lady Thatcher to the extent that one is likely to forget that they’re not watching the real person.

Thatcher in her heyday (right), and Meryl Streep (left) as the brilliant look-alike.

It is a shame for Streep that the supporting cast cannot match her display. Alexandra Roach, as ‘young Margaret’, is distinctly average, as are the two actors who play Denis Thatcher, Harry Lloyd and Jim Broadbent. The rest of the cast, particularly Anthony Head (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, The Inbetweeners Movie, Ghost Rider II: Spirit of Vengeance) and Richard Grant (Twelfth Night, Corpse Bride, Zambezia), impersonating Thatcher’s ministers Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine, respectively, play poorly with the little time they have on screen. Head and Grant do not capture their characters’ personalities accurately. Both actors appear as cowardly critics (with eyes brimming with hawkish ambition) of their leader’s policies at times of supposed crises, and Grant also fails to give Heseltine the ego that drove him to resign as Defence Minister in 1986 and challenge for party leadership in 1990.

All-in-all, Margaret Thatcher was a formidable individual in her day. She was, and still is, a highly polarising figure for many a reason. Therefore, one would expect a biographic film to be about her achievements and shortcomings as a leader, and perhaps a bit about her legacy too. Yet, The Iron Lady shows relatively little of these, preferring instead to let us watch and pity an elderly lady no longer in complete control of her mind. Despite a phenomenal performance from Streep, the film would be an insult to any human being, let alone one of the calibre of Lady Thatcher.

PG’s Tips