Solid as a rock

Not every film can be a modern classic. Not every film can be four or five stars. Not every film can be Casablanca or Rashomon or The Conversation. Some films are “solid” three star films and that’s fine. I’ve seen two at the cinema in the past two weeks. It really is fine.

You know exactly what I mean when I say three stars. (When, a lifetime ago, I performed a one-man show at the Edinburgh Fringe, I got a number of “solid” three star reviews. This, for me, was fine.) I notice that the Sunday TimesCulture section has recently, without notification or fanfare, dropped the star ratings from its LP reviews. Not from its film reviews, by the way, just from the LPs. I have no idea why, but it’s very brave; it forces you to read the reviews, or else you will never be able to divine what, say, Stewart Lee thinks of the new Fall LP. It’s amazing how refreshing and at the same time disconcerting it is. (I’ve always loved Word magazine for eschewing this celestial shorthand since day one. Long may they stick to their stubborn guns.)

I only bother mentioning these two three-star films – The Awakening and The Ides Of March – because we all exist under the tyrannical yoke of the star rating system. We’re always impressing upon writers at Radio Times that a three-star film – a “solid” three-star film! – is, by definition, “good.” (It literally means that if you check the ratings definitions.) But if, as a reviewer, you liked something, it’s tempting to push a solid three up to a more declamatory four, in order to underline your approval. A three, though, is surprisingly adequate.

I enjoyed The Awakening, and I enjoyed The Ides Of March, but neither tipped the three-star barrier. Not a problem.

Both were showing at the Curzon, which is an arthouse chain and picks and chooses carefully with a bias towards smaller films, more esoteric films, and foreign films, so I take its choices as a rough guide to a film’s quality. The Awakening is basically an English period ghost story made by BBC Films. Rebecca Hall, whose elegant and willowy presence seems, too, to act as a guide to quality – and may well have sealed the film’s fate as worthy of arthouse consideration – plays a rationalist who makes her living exposing fake spiritualists in the painful years after World War I, but has deeper psychological problems herself, exposed when she is assigned to find out how a dead boy is haunting a boarding school, when, of course, ghosts do not exist.

Directed by Nick Murphy (TV’s Occupation), and co-written with Stephen Volk (TV’s Afterlife), it’s well shot, and effectively plotted, and some of the shocks are cleverly achieved, with a lot of suspense created through silence and stillness. Also, nice to see a film that’s designed to scare, but not repulse with gore and violence. I felt the plot unravelled towards the climax, and the heroine’s rationalism was never going to escape unscathed, but it was … solid. Take out two briefly glimpsed bits of nudity and it could be shown on BBC1, early evening, on a Sunday, and lose little of its impact.

I expected a lot more from The Ides Of March, for self-evident reasons: the cast, the subject matter, and the director. My love of George Clooney is well known. Also, my love of Ryan Gosling. And my love of American politics as a suitable subject for drama. With Clooney directing, co-writing with Grant Heslov and source playwright Beau Willimon, and playing the part of a flawed Democrat candidate on the campaign trail, with Gosling and the great Philip Seymour Hoffman as his advisers, and Paul Giamatti as their opposite number over at Clooney’s rival’s office, how could this film not be a four- or five-star film?

Well, it’s powerful, it’s clever, it’s subtly acted, and although it’s not Sorkin or Mamet, it aspires to that level of smart-talking confidence and jargonese, and feels like a play in that sense. But you can see the plot twists coming, and at the end of the day, it’s no more than another star-spangled, high-powered slice of modern US politics for the kind of people who – like me! – are junkies for that kind of thing. It lacks the wit, speed and unashamed melodrama of a prime episode of The West Wing, or the surprise and ingenuity of Bulworth (on which Sorkin worked), or even Primary Colors [sic], neither of which felt as fond of themselves as The Ides Of March. It’s certainly no satire, like Bob Roberts or Wag The Dog. Far more po-faced than those.

Hey, put man-of-the-moment Gosling in anything – a breakfast cereal commercial – and it will seem instantly cooler than it is. I’d vote for him. Equally, who better to play a smooth Democrat candidate than Clooney? It’s the 21st century equivalent of Redford playing the Democrat candidate in The Candidate. As such, The Ides Of March is not going to waste anybody’s time. It’s fine. It’s a decent story, well told, with enough moments of highwire dialogue to remind you you’re not watching rubbish. But a three-star movie it is. Which, as I believe I have established, is not necessarily a problem.