Into the Valley

TA156HVjAs I type, we’re mere hours away from the final part of Happy Valley on BBC1, brutal and brilliant and one of the landmark dramas of the TV year so far, and featured heavily in this week’s Telly Addict. While animated by ensuing episodes of Sally Wainwright’s fem-centric Hebden Bridge crime saga, I have been let down by the way From There To Here unfolded in its second episode, also on BBC1, and also covered this week, for balance. Plus: the 1950s-Dublin-set Quirke, also on BBC1, which I’m loving, so I am, and Imagine: Philip Roth Unleashed on BBC2, a rare treat for those of us who’ve only read Portnoy’s Complaint. For fun, I cover Four Rooms on C4, which returned for its fourth series and is basically a posh Cash In The Attic, but no less fun for that. Happy Valley! Happy Valley! Happy Valley!

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A good idea on paper

I had two choices at the Curzon this afternoon (because I work on Saturday mornings, I often give myself Friday afternoon off in lieu and treat myself to a film): True Grit and Never Let Me Go, both preceded by hype, both packed with actors I like, both weighed down with awards and/or nominations. I chose the latter, which, on a drizzly afternoon when I was a bit tired anyway due to early starts, was the wrong choice. At least a big, fat western would have woken me up a bit.

Never Let Me Go, directed by Mark Romanek (the impressive One Hour Photo and, among a long CV of pop videos, the magnificent Hurt), and adapted for the screen from the 2005 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro by Alex Garland, who can also write a novel, it has all the hallmarks of quality. It has subtle titles; it is bleached out; it is slow; it drip-feeds information rather than – like, say, Outcasts – beats you around the face with signposts; and its acting is subtle and quiet. This is not a film to please dimwits. However, it is a film to displease me. Having read the rave reviews I am now concerned that it may be me, rather than the film. While editing the reviews of the new releases for Radio Times this week, I suggested we take out mention of the story’s central premise from the review, because to know it is to have a huge slice of your potential enjoyment taken away before it starts. (Most reviews I’ve read give it away – at least Sight & Sound warned of spoilers in red letters – so if you don’t know it, read nothing. There will be no giveaways here.)

It’s possible that knowing the “twist” (it’s not a twist that comes at the end, which is why I use speechmarks) reduced my own enjoyment of Never Let Me Go. It’s also arguable that the opening scene, although elliptical, gives it away too. Either way, a lot unfolds from a seemingly benign first act in a very measured and intelligent way. It moves at its own pace and gathers to a sort of climax, although not one that’s climactic in the popcorn-munching sense. Am I being vague enough? All you need to know is that the action hinges on three performances: Carey Mulligan (whose character Kathy also narrates), Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield. I am an admirer of the work of all three, even Knightley’s. Unfortunately, we don’t see their characters as adults until about midway through, as the first act takes place at an enigmatic English boarding school – so we’re stuck with child actors, none of whom are bad, but all of whom are children, and as such, an elongated tease before we get to Mulligan, Knightley and Garfield.

By the time the action catches up with our heroes in young adulthood, it’s been a pretty dull ride. It was only when I emerged into the light from the film’s overriding browns and greys, that I realised what had failed to ignite. It’s a classic case of film-based-on-a-novel. I can imagine its langourous pace and gentle act of unfolding working superbly on the page, when you are forced to imagine it all; likewise, the eloquent narration of Kathy is designed to be read, not listened to, or at least, not listened to in the context of a dramatisation that’s intended to make fictional events real. I’m not against narration per se – unfashionably, I like Blade Runner with the voiceover – but it can pall when there’s this much of it. Garland apparently wrote the script before the novel was published, that’s how certain he was that it would make a film. Well, it does. But my guess is that it makes a better book. Damn, I feel as if I must be some kind of philistine for not getting much out of this film. It has not affected my love of the actors, or the filmmakers. We just passed each other by, somehow. I wonder how those who have read the book will feel?

Still, True Grit tomorrow. That was a novel too. Narrated by a female character.

Minority report

I take no intrinsic pleasure in going against the grain of critical consensus. I am not an iconoclast. I am not a shock jock. It can get lonely out here on a limb. I go to see films in the hope of liking them. But I can sense I’m already in a minority about Christopher Nolan’s BIG new sci-fi blockbuster Inception, which opens tomorrow.

I found it a crashing bore. Meanwhile, Empire have published a review which takes a contrary position – a review which couldn’t be included on the page as part of their whizz-bang, all-cylinders, this-is-why-we-love-films cover feature because nobody had seen it when they put the magazine to bed. The reviewer Nev Pierce awards Inception five stars, and, over the course of an analysis that feels like it runs to the same length as the cover story, explains why – in short – THERE IS NOTHING WHATSOEVER WRONG WITH IT. The review, if you have an afternoon to spare, is here.

It seems Nev Pierce is not alone in liking Inception, although I would say that his watertight, no-quarter, point-by-point deification, potentially coloured by a collective, priapic pre-release excitement at his place of work, may come back to haunt him as punters stagger, deaf, from the cinemas this weekend. When their hearing returns, and they find that, in fact, they are not still thinking about Nolan’s woolly, old-fashioned, dream-versus-reality universe on Monday, or being kept awake at night by key philosophical questions this time next week, they might settle down and post-rationalise Empire‘s five star review to a four or a three. For me, it’s a two, and I was reeeeeeeeally looking forward to it! Maybe not as much as Empire, but a lot.

True, I felt locked out of the love-in for The Dark Knight, Nolan’s previous epic – mainly because I preferred Batman Begins – but I appreciated his work. It was ambitious and occasionally dazzling, and I liked the Joker and the bit where they were arbitrarily in Hong Kong, but Christian Bale’s croaky voice drifted into parody and there were too many villains and too many stories. All that said, The Dark Knight was a good film on points, and it sort of made sense. Inception, based not upon a book or a graphic novel, but on an idea that came straight from Nolan’s fertile imagination, lives or dies on whether it makes sense. And as grand and noisy as it is, its internal logic is pretty shaky, and again arbitrary. In it, Leonardo DiCaprio, reviving – so soon! – his haunted husband-and-father schtick from Shutter Island (anyone else unconvinced that he’s old enough to have kids?) leads a crack, sexy team of operatives who get inside someone’s dreams and extract information buried in the subconscious – a subconscious made manifest by the dream state’s eternal possibility. This is an attractive prospect: a cross between The Matrix and Ocean’s Eleven.

I liked the cast Nolan assembled for the job: Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy as the corporate heir whose head they need to get inside for “one last job” – there’s even a little cameo for Michael Caine – but when it comes down to it, they’re mostly called upon to shoot guns from moving vehicles and run – or float – about. Nothing wrong with a wham-bam action movie, but who needs one with ideas way above its station? Marion Cotillard is saddled with the worst part – DiCaprio’s wife. I won’t go into too much detail, for fear of SPOILING it for anyone, but she and he get the majority of the talking time, and by the end of it, I found myself making my hand into the shape of a duck’s head and making it quack silently, in the auditorium, while I longed for them to shut up. This was a very childish response, but it helped me through it.

This central thesis that anything can happen in dreams, except it probably won’t, is, for me, the film’s big downfall. DiCaprio gets to explain his line of work, in detail, and demonstrate it, when he recruits Page. This is the most exciting passage in the film, at first explosive and then awesome. She “designs” a dream world, and actually does infinite and mind-blowing things with it (you’ll have seen this in the trailer). I don’t know how she does it, but there are architectural models in her workshop which somehow become “real” when Murphy is hooked intravenously up to the flight case in a plane and knocked out with sedative. From here, again carefully explained by just about everybody, there are three levels of dream, and each is deeper than the last. Again, no plot giveaways, but one of these – again seen in the trailer and in Empire‘s extensive cover feature – is set in the snowy mountains of Canada. Why? This was never fully explained to me, although I’m willing to be it’s because Nolan fancied having some skiing assailants in his film, Spy Who Loved Me style.

Despite the apparently existential, mind-fucking core of Inception, it’s mostly about shooting and being shot, in the street, in a hotel, and up a mountain. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. Again, I like a bit of gunplay, but if it’s constant, it loses its impact. (The pump-action shootout was loud and relentless in Heat, but it was contained.) Likewise the soundtrack. The film begins with a shot of waves crashing on a beach, and a throbbing, resonating orchestral chord. From here, there’s no let-up. Pretty much every conversation and exchange of gunfire has a musical cue. Zulu had about 20 minutes of John Barry music in it (this random comparison arises from the fact that I happen to know this); most of Inception‘s two and a half hours is scored. And at volume. Music is supposed to point up and accentuate the drama, not smother it.

If it’s about dreams, then we’ve all had dreams, and we know that in them, anything could happen. In this film, anything does not. Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland had a nutty, nightmarish quality, with stuff fading psychotropically in and out of view. Inception is not like that. Come in halfway through and you could be watching a cop thriller set in LA. The only real ambiguity comes in passages of expositional dialogue. Although Nolan cuts deftly between three levels during the bulk of the action, it seems justified less by the narrative, which is actually fractured as a result, and more by the fun (for him) of playing at being a visual Rick Wakeman. Needless to say, the music gets louder and most insistent as the tension builds. And it takes a long time to peak.

I cannot do anything about my visceral reaction to the film. It was not for me, that’s all. It felt empty. Although there is an emotional subplot, I didn’t much care about the protagonists. Inception is less than the sum of its parts. You should go and see it if you’re as pumped up about it as I was before Tuesday. I may have painted my reputation into a corner. But by comparison, I was dreading seeing The Karate Kid remake on Wednesday, but it was an honest family blockbuster, and I found myself enjoying it. Preconception does not colour my views. I love to have my mind changed.

Someone on Twitter rudely suggested that I didn’t like Inception because I didn’t understand it. Feel free to patronise me along those lines. I would actually counter that there wasn’t much to understand. I would also point you to Minority Report and Blade Runner, which also run on an inner logic based upon science fiction, but both made sense, perhaps because they were based on novels, whose ideas had already survived scrutiny, and would be scrutinised and maybe sharpened up in translation for the screen.

Over to you, I guess. Nobody’s an oracle.