The Virginian Suicides

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Another enjoyable Wimbledon Tennis Championship draws to a close. Each year, as a racquet-ball widower, I draw upon the alternative entertainment on offer at the Curzon cinema – and by digital extension, Curzon Home Cinema – to help me through the fortnight of tennis. I’ve already reviewed The Midwife and A Man Called Ove; here’s the second rally, effected over two days. (As an embargo prevents me from reviewing Dunkirk until tomorrow, I feel I should honour the smaller films on offer.)

The “biggest” of the five films I’ve chalked up is The Beguiled, in the sense that it was directed by Sofia Coppola, who picked up an award at Cannes for the painstaking trouble she went to in remaking an ancient Clint Eastwood film for the Millennials. It’s certainly not the longest of the five pictures that entertained me over the weekend: at 94 minutes, it’s nine minutes shorter than Don Siegel’s 1971 version, but then, Coppola has chosen to excise the black slave character Hallie (Mae Mercer) for fear – I have assumed – of muddying the waters of the story for white liberal viewers. It really is gorgeous to look at. Coppola’s films tend to be. Shot in Louisiana, for Virginia (It was set in Mississippi in the original), it’s a fecund setting, all shafts of light and trailing fronds, a wall of natural beauty between the virginal/celibate, starched female inhabitants of the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies (two adult tutors, five remaining young ladies) and the outside world ie. the grim reality of the American Civil War, fetchingly hinted at by photogenic wisps of smoke in the far distance and tiny thrums of gunpowder igniting. Colin Farrell plays Clint’s Corporal John McBurney, the injured Union soldier taken in by the seminary to convalesce and to ruin the hormonal balance of the plantation house.

I don’t object to beauty for its own sake. Film is a visual medium, after all. But The Beguiled lacks freight. It is almost weightless. Even when Farrell’s sap rises, it’s as glimpsed and hinted-at as the plumes of war. He has one outburst – the one with the pet turtle if you saw Clint in 1971 – but even that’s cauterised. His fate will come as no surprise to anyone who saw the original film on TV, as I did as a kid , or who saw this remake’s trailer, which gives the whole game away. It’s an oddly neutered version of the original film. When Nicole Kidman’s headmistress washes the war-filthy body of an unconscious Farrell (something the slave did in the first version), he looks like he’s already been pre-washed. When the ladies do what it’s clear they’re going to from the trailer, it’s all off-screen. A tale of violent coming-of-age in a violent era it may be, but the violence is not even worth mentioning on the BBFC classification card (only “infrequent strong sex” – if you insist!) It reminded me of Coppola’s delectably moody debut, The Virgin Suicides (which shares Kirsten Dunst with The Beguiled, now all grown up) – but that really was beguiling. It’s like she’s moved from art to home decorating.

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Get Out (released earlier in the year and out on DVD next week) is the polar opposite of The Beguiled in terms of squeamishness around race. Written and directed by feature debutant Jordan Peele – half of an acclaimed sketch double-act Key & Peele, yet to be exported here – this is a horror film about race. It comes on like a laser-guided post-Girls satire on the terror of white liberals around black people, with Chris (British export Daniel Kaluuya), the “black boyfriend” of Rose (Allison Williams), who’s taken to meet the rich parents in their cloistered suburban enclave, where the only black faces belong to “servants”, about whom Mom (Catherine Keener) and Dad (Bradley Whitford) are wracked with progressive guilt. (Rose tells Chris she never told them he was black, and why, as a colourblind liberal, would she?) From the get-go, Get Out is different. On first inspection, though drawn as figures of fun, the parents aren’t racist. The subservience of their black maid, and the compliance of their black groundskeeper, give cause for concern, but Chris is as blindsided by his own desire not to be reactionary to the casual stereotyping. (One white guest at party of Mike Leigh awkwardness actually hints at a black man’s fabled sexual prowess, while a golf fan claims to be a huge fan of Tiger Woods, as if that absolves him.) Without giving the game away, things turn nasty, and disturbing, and you won’t see the twist coming, I swear. It’s funny and terrifying, and has so much to say, it ought not be this fleet of foot. But it is. Peele treads on toes without tripping up. One of the most original films of the year.

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We’ve already seen Elle Fanning in The Beguiled, and although I understand why her willowy presence is so fashionable right now, it’s a dangerous game to appear to be in everything. (I guess when you’re that thin you slot in easily.) She’s in 20th Century Women, a film you’d be certain from its title and its publicity was written and directed by a woman. It’s written and directed by Mike Mills, the one who isn’t in REM and who gave us the memorable Beginners, a film about men, a son and his gay dad. This is, inevitably, more female. Set in 1979 and appealingly soaked in punk and post-punk including Talking Heads, The Damned and The Clash. Fanning is a willowy occasional patron of Annette Bening’s free-for-all hippy boarding house in Santa Monica. Another tenant is Greta Gerwig’s pretentious cancer patient who discovers she has an “incompetent cervix” from her gynaecologist, dances to exorcise her anger, and, we’re told in voiceover, “saw The Man Who Fell to Earth and dyed her hair red.” Bening had her son (Lucas Jade Zumann) late and feels she’s too old to meaningfully steer him to young adulthood, recruiting the other women in her orbit to do it in shifts. So, it’s a coming-of-age, like The Beguiled, except the women are in charge of a teenage boy, not a wounded man. Ironically, he seems old beyond his years, confused that Fanning rejects him since he got “horny”. (“We don’t have sex!” she assures an adult who finds them in bed together.) Billy Crudup, another tenant, also a carpenter who’s renovating the tumbledown hotel California, is too obsessed with wood to find any traction with the kid.

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Pregnancy, cancer, menstruation, feminism, all are fit subjects for his ad hoc home-education, and you sort of envy him, as he drowns in radical thinking. I felt that the reliance on narration in the recent Bryan Cranston film Wakefield eventually did for it (it was adapted from a New Yorker short story, much of it word for word). But in 20th Century Women, it suits the quirky, episodic, Wes Anderson-indebted style. When the narration mentions a particular brand of fertility medication, we see a rostrum shot of a single pill from above; when Gerwig talks of a photography project, we see the Polaroids in sequence. That kind of caper. Mills also slots in genuine photos from the period (of Lou Reed, the Sex Pistols, that kind of caper), and it reminded me of the original of The Beguiled, which set its scene with genuine photos of the Civil War. There are no rules against it. I also loved Bening’s line about smoking: “You know, when I started, they weren’t bad for you.” Such economical signposting of age. She says, in narration, that she will die of lung cancer in 1999. It gives you quite a start: she’s suddenly omniscient. Bold writing, and worthy of its Oscar nomination.

In Get Out, Chris is lured into something unpleasant by psychotherapists. In 20th Century Women, everybody is either in therapy, or should be, or offers amateur psychoanalysis at the drop of a hat. If Get Out if post-Girls, this is pre-Girls. Jamie is artistically bullied by Black Flag fans – who spray-can his mother’s VW (“ART FAG”) – because he likes Talking Heads! (“The punk scene is very divisive,” observes Gerwig.) Jamie ends up telling his mom, “I’m dealing with everything right now. You’re dealing with nothing.”)

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My Cousin Rachel is the second big-screen adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier novel that’s actually a kind of “reverse Rebecca.” (Why wasn’t that on the posters?) Adapted and directed by Roger Michell, it’s as perfectly poised as The Beguiled, but its dramatic tableaux carry freight, emotional and narrative. Rachel Weisz was kind of born to play the title role, as she is also called Rachel, when Olive de Havilland wasn’t in the 1957 version. Sam Claflin in well cast from the neck up, in that he convinces as the orphaned heir of a wealthy cousin who inherits a Cornish estate and discovers another claimant on his inheritance, the titular cousin, half-Italian and suspected of foul play. When I say Claflin – who takes the role etched by Richard Burton in the 1957 one – is well cast from the neck up, I mean it literally. His face acting is first-rate – although when he has been a gullible fool throughout and finally admits, “I’ve been a fool”, one gentleman in the Curzon quietly exclaimed, “Yes, you have!” and other patrons laughed without malice. But at one point when, as in all costume dramas, he is forced by a sexist orthodoxy to take off his shirt, we see that his shoulders are not shoulder-shaped but triangular, as if perhaps this country fop was a bodybuilder. (In real life, like all young male actors, he presumably feels duty-bound to work out to within an inch of his life, and this often breaks the spell of costume drama. I mean there’s no way Ross Poldark got like that by cutting the grass.)

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Look at the above still. It’s a fabulous bit of location scouting in Devon, costume design, lighting, framing and cinematography. They have done Du Maurier proud.

I relish this Catholic spread of cinema. The most generic of all was Berlin Syndrome, a film I took to be German, as it’s set in Berlin, but turns out to be Australian, the third film of Cate Shortland, whose entire output I have seen without trying to. (She also made Somersault, set in Australia, and Lore, also set in Germany.) In it, an Aussie backpacker, Clare (Teresa Palmer) goes back to the flat of a German teacher, Andi (Max Riemelt); they sleep together; he goes off to work the next morning; she finds herself accidentally locked in his apartment. He gets home; she discovers that he has no intention of letting her out. (Imagine the torture of being a globe-trotting Australian traveller being locked into a flat with reinforced, acoustically soundproofed windows so no-one can hear you scream!) This film is a thriller, a chamber piece, and a very effective one. A touch of Rear Window about it, and a bit of hobbling that recalls Misery and The Beguiled.

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It’s not deep, but it is lyrically shot by Shortland, showing scenes of “normality” outside the flat that becomes Clare’s cell in slow motion, as if to underline the freedom of ordinary existence. There’s gore and terror, and more than a hint of Stockholm Syndrome – or is it? – to keep the otherwise claustrophobic story going. Andi is well played – he really is charming enough to convince girls back to his flat, and to keep his workmates in the staff room from suspecting (until he starts to unravel) – but it’s Palmer’s triumph. She is the victim, but does not play the victim. You’re willing her to get out.

The tennis is literally just finishing as I finish typing (Jamie Murray and Martina Hinglis are being interviewed after the doubles final). Five worthwhile films, two at the cinema, three at the laptop in coffee shops. If you’ve seen any of them, let me know what you thought.

Love film. Film love.

A girl’s best friend

A couple of films, then. By the way, I must apologise in advance for January and February, as I am up against two deadlines, one of them for six episodes of Mr Blue Sky for Radio 4 by mid-March, so I am bound to find less time to write longer form blog entries. But I’ll try and keep up with the films. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo came out on Boxing Day and I saw it a couple of days ago. It’s very good. This is the American remake of the Swedish original; an economic inevitability when much of the English-speaking world fears subtitles. In many ways, Columbia and David Fincher are providing a public service.

I have no investment in the Stieg Larsson Millennium Trilogy upon which the films are based (hey, they’re modern novels, ergo I haven’t read them), so have no idea how faithful the three Swedish movies were to their source. I suspect very, but don’t know for sure. Although a sometimes uncomfortable blend of nasty and flashy, I enjoyed all three to varying degrees, in the same way that I often enjoy Scandinavian films and TV for providing a vivid glimpse into another culture that couldn’t be more different to our own. It’s not just the weather, either. I loved The Killing, and felt there was little point in transposing the action to Washington state for the US remake, so stuck with my beloved original. (All they did was re-tell the same story and throw out all the national character that made Sarah Lund, Troels Hartmann and Theis and Pernille Birk Larsen so compelling and different. Christopher Nolan’s Hollywood remake of Insomnia threw out the Norwegian setting of the original and took the story to Alaska, but something was still lost in translation.)

What Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zailian have done is to sensibly retain the Swedish setting of the Trilogy, specifically metropolitan Stockholm and the remote private island, and in doing so have been able to mine the same themes of national identity and deep Nazi guilt without them seeming odd. One person on Twitter asked me if they’d “Yanked it up”. Well, not really, especially as most of the principals are English, specifically the well-cast and low-key Daniel Craig (who looks Swedish but doesn’t attempt the Swedish accent, just about getting away with it, as the English accent he uses is deliberately bland and generic), Christopher Plummer (who does a fabulous job with his), Steven Berkoff, Geraldine James, Donald Sumpter, Julian Sands and Joely Richardson (whose character is Swedish but moved to London, explaining her Anglicised voice). Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t obsess about the accents while watching the film. In fact, I applaud everyone apart from Craig for having a go; it means you can get on with immersing yourself in the fiction. (I couldn’t take Valkyrie seriously, for instance, as the cast spoke in their own accents, mostly American, and not German.) So, no, it’s not “Yanked up”. The only key Americans in Dragon Tattoo are Robin Wright (who looks Swedish) and Rooney Mara, who does a great job at Lisbeth – she’s just as grim-faced, androgynous and lithe as Noomi Rapace, and defies you to look upon her with laddish lust.

Gothenburg’s Stellan Skarsgård uses his own accent, of course. (He was the star of the original Insomnia by the way, doing a Norwegian accent. You should seek it out.)

Fincher really is one of the best directors working in Hollywood today. I couldn’t get on with Benjamin Button, but it was technically brilliant, and I’ve admired pretty much everything else he’s turned his assured hand to. Dragon Tattoo is a conventional thriller, but, like Fincher’s Zodiac, it puts as much store with the dramatisation of research as with the staging of the action sequences. Yes, Lisbeth does a lot of sexy motorbike riding, but for most of the film she’s at her laptop or going through files in a company archive. This accent on clerical work is brave, but it’s true to the source as Lisbeth’s escape from a lifetime of abuse and incarceration is her clerical skill. Unusually for a film about computers, the screens and websites and engines in this seem pretty real. (Lisbeth looks someone up on Wikipedia at one point, rather than an obvious faked version of Wikipedia.)

If you’ve never seen the original because you are “too lazy” to read subtitles (I don’t hold with this generalisation, by the way, I’m ironically quoting a snob who used the phrase on Twitter), then dive in. This is definitely grown up cinema – it’s an 18, and earns that not through the usual visceral violence, but through scenes of a sexual nature that are far from conventionally titillating and do not involve consent. It’s dark material. But brilliantly made. And the James Bond-style opening credits, over Trent Reznor’s cover of Immigrant Song, are almost worth the ticket alone.

My Week With Marilyn has been out even longer than Dragon Tattoo, but the Curzon in Soho seems to be showing a variety of older films with awards buzz this week, so I made the most of it. What a disappointment. It’s Michelle Williams’ performance as Marilyn Monroe and Kenneth Branagh’s as Laurence Olivier that are attracting attention, and both are commendable and in the latter case, often hilarious. But the film wrapped around them, based upon the memoir by Colin Clark, who, aged 23, found himself working as third assistant director on The Prince and The Showgirl at Pinewood (he’s played by the handsome Eddie Redmayne), is deeply confused. It begins as a sort of lively period farce about the young toff’s introduction to the British film industry and rattles along with the same spot-the-real-person appeal as, say, The Iron Lady, or, frankly, any drama about a sad British comedian’s secret pain made by BBC4: “Ooh look, that’s Vivien Leigh! That’s Dame Sybil Thorndike! That’s cinematographer Jack Cardiff! That’s Arthur P Jacobs, future producer of Planet Of The Apes!” (a couple for the cineastes, there) … But in the second half it softens into the soft-focus, doomed Platonic love affair between Clark and Monroe.

Because it’s based on Clark’s account, published after Marilyn was long dead, we only have his word for what went on behind closed doors (he died in 2002, by the way), and it all starts to feel a little like a laddish fantasy. We have to believe that after hubby Arthur Miller’s departure from England, Marilyn was unable to work without Colin by her side. He doesn’t do anything as ungentlemanly as try to get off with her while she is drugged into a hazy state of consciousness, but he does get to spend a lot of time with her, and, in one key scene, skinny dip in a river. With Marilyn Monroe. I’m not saying it didn’t happen this way, but I am saying that I found it difficult to buy into. I much preferred the film when it was Branagh having a whale of a time impersonating Olivier, stomping about and swearing around a sound stage. The period detail was good, but the story was awkward: Monroe was clearly a mess, and the film doesn’t shy away from showing this, and yet, it all ends swimmingly. The captions at the end remind us that her next film, Some Like It Hot, was a smash hit. Hooray! Never mind that Monroe would die, alone, aged 36, poisoned by barbiturates, within a few years.

Also, Emma Watson was in it. I thought she’d decided to knock acting on the head?

My Week With Marilyn is anything but lacking in appeal. But it really wasn’t worth going all the way to the cinema to see it. If Williams or Branagh find themselves with award nominations for their parts, it will be fine and dandy, as both put in good work. But the film strives to be both saccharine and sad at the same time, and, for me, ultimately curdles. It present Monroe as a dependent flake from the beginning, and then is at pains to say, actually, she was a great screen actress. I think she was, by the way, although not so much in The Prince and The Showgirl.

(By the way, the editor of Radio Times told me today that he loved the film. So it may just be me.)

This much is true

After Never Let Me Go, I needed to see something that was going to live up to expectations. True Grit fulfilled that brief. I speak as a fan of classic westerns, a fan of the Coen brothers, a fan of the Henry Hathaway original, a fan of Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, and a cynic of Hollywood remakes, which, for all the dressing up, this is. The Coens use the Brighton Rock Defence and claim that their True Grit is a remake of the original 1968 Charles Portis novel and not the 1969 Hathaway film, which won John Wayne his only Oscar. Certainly, the novel seems to have revolved around its 14-year old protagonist Mattie Ross more than in the subsequent first film, which became a vehicle for Wayne as fat, drunken, one-eyed marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn. Here, although Bridges eats up the screen with his own drawling take on the character, Mattie (played near-miraculously by then-13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld) reclaims centre stage. It’s her film – which is to say, it’s Steinfeld’s film – and in that sense, the Coens have repositioned what most people know as a John Wayne film incredibly successfully.

I love the original, but that’s really because I have an enormous soft spot for Wayne and for the mythic iconography of the western. This is not a “revisionist” take on the genre; it is an overwhelmingly affectionate tribute to the great westerns of the past. The Coens love westerns. Some of their previous work hints at this: Blood Simple, with the cowboy boots and pistols of its Texan setting, might structurally and thematically be described as a modern-day western as much as a neo-noir, O Brother Where Art Thou? has a western-style relationship with the wide open spaces of the American landscape, while No Country For Old Men might as well have been a dry run for their first, full-on cowboy film set in the Old West. They were born to do True Grit. And what a triumph it is. I don’t often see films that bring to mind the word “faultless”, but this did.

The fact that it’s a remake, and that the story is so familiar to me, becomes irrelevant almost instantly. The Coens make it their own. The script is so beautifully crafted and sculpted, and witty without being jokey, it is a pure delight to listen to. In the mouths of Steinfeld, Bridges and Damon, this highly decorative but homogenous language takes on its own character, and whether it’s an exchange between Mattie and the horse trader, or Damon’s LeBoeuf and Cogburn, or Mattie and outlaw Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper – what a fortuitous bit of casting!), their individual relationships emerge. There’s some fine, nuanced acting going on here, and if Steinfeld and Bridges don’t scoop up something at tonight’s Baftas or next week’s Oscars, there is no justice.

The Coens are prone to irony, which is what makes their comedies such fun, but when they step back from this fruitful form of postmodernism and play it a little more sincere, it pays dividends. (For instance, I enjoyed Burn After Reading, but feel no need to see it again. I have watched Fargo many times, and Blood Simple, come to that. Oh, and I hated The Ladykillers just as much as you did.) Although True Grit is a genre picture, it does not seek to overturn or modernise – or “revise” – that genre; it is reverent to its source, and as formal as they promised at the outset: the iconography is present and correct – there’s a truly stunning shot with the three riders, Mattie, Cogburn and LaBoeuf, captured within a glorious landscape (New Mexico stands in for the Choctaw Nation or what became, in 1907, Oklahoma) and it’s simply perfect – and the soundtrack, by longtime collaborator Carter Burwell, breaks new old ground by working in hymns of the time, thus making it ineligible for the Best Original Soundtrack Oscar, the same cruel fate that befell Clint Mansell’s impressive score for Black Swan.

If you don’t like westerns and what made the classic westerns great, you might understandably not like True Grit. (There were three teenage boys in the row in front of us at the Curzon who were fidgeting and rustling crisp bags most of the way through it – I’m not 100% sure what they were doing in there in the first place.) But the Coens’ attention to texture and composition as well as to performance and language make it one of their very finest works. And who would have guessed that from the news that they were doing a remake? It stands with the very best westerns; for me, it’s the equal of Unforgiven.