International rescue

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As a long-established tennis widower, I feel very fortunate to have a Curzon cinema in a workable radius, especially during Wimbledon fortnight. This week, I took advantage of clement weather and a free afternoon/evening to forge my own European foreign-language double-bill. (In fact, one of them was a bit like a tennis match between two champions.) Both films I saw are, as it happens, available on Curzon Home Cinema, which means if you don’t live in a decent radius of a Curzon, or other arthouse chain, you can stream them for a tenner for 48 hours: A Man Called Ove (En man som heter Ove), from Sweden, and The Midwife (Sage Femme), from France/Belgium.

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I actually saw them in reverse order, and I’m glad that I did, as I preferred Ove. The Midwife, directed by Martin Provost, whose previous work I’m not au fait with, is notable for its pairing of two celebrated French actresses, the regal 60s icon Catherine Deneuve, now 73, and Catherine Frot, a decade or so younger and less well known to me, but showered with awards in her prolific career. Their uneasy reunion – Deneuve was the lover of Frot’s father, a champion swimmer, who committed suicide when she dumped him – is the engine that drives the film, with the elder, boozy floozy bringing the tight-arsed, dedicated midwife out of her celibate shell – ironically, she’s the one with the teenage son, but he’s never home. The relationship between the two women is tragi-comic as Deneuve has only looked her onetime stepdaughter up because she’s got a brain tumour and has no actual family.

There’s no doubting the fun Deneuve is having, playing a feckless, dishonest, gambling goodtime girl, but Fort’s is the more interesting character, if rather one-note. (We see her successfully and lovingly delivering gooey baby after gooey baby, as if her job is an act of sainthood.) I have a lot of time for contemporary French films, because I’m shallow enough to aspire to the lifestyle, and enjoy seeing grown-ups sit down at a bar for a single glass of red wine or a chalice of beer and a fag (or, in Deneuve’s case at one point, a lovely looking omelette and fries). I quite enjoyed Frot’s allotment neighbour and love interest, played by Olivier Gourmet, but after Deneuve’s operation on the tumour, The Midwife becomes a little idealised and gooey.

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A Man Called Ove, from Swedish director Hannes Holm and adapted from a popular novel by Fredrik Backman, also hinges on a suicide, albeit an unsuccessful one. Rolf Lassgard, usually seen with a fine mane of hair (he’s best known as Wallander), plays the bald widower of the title, initially presented as a grumpy, interfering busybody and self-styled caretaker of a pleasant neighbourhood estate. He locks up bicycles that are improperly parked, shouts at a woman with a Chihuahua, rages at a new neighbour backing a trailer up a path not designated for motor vehicles, refuses to accept that a single bunch of flowers costs more than one in a two-for-one offer, and so on. But Ove is not just angry, he is sad. We see him talking to his beloved wife Sonja’s grave (“I miss you”), while replacing the flowers, and he assures her that he will join her soon. (After 43 years at the same company, he has recently been let go, another act of cruelty by a world that seems to have left him to rot.)

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It has a certain, deadpan, Amèlie-like storybook quality, especially in the flashbacks, through which we learn of Ove’s life. You may find some of it a little twee, and that the more prosaically daft details – such as Ove’s feud with a neighbour based exclusively in their opposing choice of car make – Ove worships the Saab, his nemesis Rune drives a Volvo, and heinously replaces it with a BMW – undercut the grave seriousness of both Ove’s suicidal tendencies, and the tragedy in his backstory, but I rather liked the incongruity. When – no spoilers – a tragic event happens in one of Ove’s early flashbacks to childhood and encroaching young-adulthood, it’s almost played by Holm in the same off-the-cuff style, and for me it makes the mortality all the more portentous.

There’s a Hollywood remake in here waiting to happen. Re-stage it in Omaha, or Cleveland, or Westchester, stick a curmudgeonly Bryan Cranston in a bald wig in the main role (the Sight & Sound reviewer suggests Jack Nicholson, but he’s way too old; Ove is only supposed to be 59), and there’s a diversity-friendly sidekick waiting to balance it all up. Ove is initially irritated by his new neighbours – Swedish husband, Iranian wife Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), two adorable kids – but it’s clear that Parveneh will be his salvation, with her no-nonsense attitude and refusal to play Ove’s game of one man against the world. He will learn to love the kids, and get over himself, and it will be Parveneh – terrible driver, scatty householder – who teaches him. The foregone conclusion has surprises along the way, though. This is a story that rewards. (People tell me they loved the novel.)

I’ve thought a lot about Ove since seeing it, and him. The Midwife, less so.

I have seen a lot of foreign-language films I loved in the first six months of 2017: Elle, The Salesman, Graduation, The Handmaiden, Neruda, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, Toni Erdmann, El Pastor, The Other Side of Hope, Frantz, Heal the Living … But also, some exceptional films in the English language, both UK-made and American: Prevenge, Manchester by the Sea, Christine, Moonlight, The Lost City of Z, Free Fire, Baby Driver, A Quiet Passion, Lady Macbeth, The Levelling … I also liked Personal Shopper, a French film largely in English, and starring an American, and two of the most celebrated, and decorated, films from Hollywood: Moonlight and La La Land. All are welcome in my tent.

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It doesn’t matter, but I think my Top 10 have been (in a fairly casual order):

  1. The Levelling | Hope Dickson Leach (UK)
  2. El Pastor | Jonathan Cenzual Burley (Spain)
  3. A Quiet Passion | Terence Davies (UK)
  4. The Lost City of Z | James Grey (US)
  5. Neruda | Pablo Larraìn (Chile/Argentina/France/Spain)
  6. Graduation | Cristian Mungiu (Romania)
  7. Baby Driver | Edgar Wright (UK)
  8. Heal the Living | Katell Quillévéré (France/US/Belgium)
  9. David Lynch: The Art Life | Rick Barnes, Jon Nguyen, Olivia Neergaard-Holm (US)
  10. The Handmaiden | Park Chan-wook (South Korea)

Another week of tennis to go. Love all.

There’s her jumper

I’m sorry, I have a cold. Hopefully it won’t hamper your enjoyment of this week’s Telly Addict, which takes a keen interest in … Sarah Lund’s knitwear in The Killing III on Scandinavia’s BBC4, the portrayal of a fantasy BBC you could really trust in the 1957-set The Hour on BBC2; the tragic trajectory of Nadine Dorries MP on I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here! on ITV1; and a bit of prime Gyp Rosetti on Sky Altantic’s Boardwalk Empire, but don’t worry if you’re a spoiler-shy Sky refusenik and are waiting for the box set, it’s a stand-alone clip that has no bearing on the plot, other than Gyp Rosetti is in it.

I could murder a Danish/Swedish

This week’s Telly Addict, which features a new jacket (rain-spattered on the walk up to the Guardian from the British Library, but hopefully you won’t notice), covers many things: The 70s on BBC2; The Bridge on – where else? – BBC4, or BBC-SvedeDansk as I think we should all call it; Four Rooms on C4; Two Greedy Italians on BBC2; and Smash on Sky Atlantic, which turned out to be the first bum note in the channel’s short history.

All around the world Pt 2

The Easter foreign film festival continued yesterday, with two more from the Curzon. First, A Cat In Paris, which is the Oscar-nominated French animation whose actual title is Un Vie de Chat (A Cat’s Life), which is not the same thing at all, but hey, they’ve got to sell it to a non-French-speaking audience. Unfortunately, this also means re-dubbing it in English, which was an otherwise sweet family film’s downfall. Hey, I’m a cat person, as you are no doubt tired of hearing, and as such I was very happy with the way the cat was animated by Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli (neither of whom seems to have any past form – maybe this was their debut animation).

The way le chat “spoke” (ie. miaowed and purred and hissed) was realistic, and despite the stylised animation, which rendered human bodies and faces as 2D geometric shapes, shaded by a Marc Chagall-like “pastel” shadow effect, our feline protagonist was made fur and flesh in a convincingly catty way. However, it was the humans who ruined it. The story, about a little girl rendered mute after the death of her policeman father at the hands of a dastardly villain who finds her voice when she discovers that her cat is leading a double life with a lithe and seemingly benign burglar, may be centred around the pet, but it is largely populated by people who are little more than, well, caricatures and archetypes. They are not without style (I liked the dainty way their feet were animated), but the humans are sucked of all charm by the woeful quality of the English voices.

I can only hope the French dialogue sounded better in French. (Maybe the French original was the one that was circulated to the Academy, hence its surprise Oscar nomination?) In English, in those voices, it was either insincere, melodramatic or comic. The lead characters were American. Why? In Paris? There’s the Eiffel Tower! There’s Notre Dame! The criminal gang has an assortment of accents, ranging from idiotic Cockney, via humorous German to a truly arse-quakingly bad Texan. I wonder if these voices were supplied by French voiceover artists “doing” English? If so, why not have them all speak in English but with ‘Allo ‘Allo-style “Fronsh” accents? It would have made more sense.

So, ultimately, a nice, 70-minute visual experience – with some really beautiful, jazzy, funky, bendy, asymmetric rooftop backdrops – almost killed by bad dubbing. Still, the cat was nice.

A much better bet all round was Headhunters (or Hodejegerne), the first cinema adaptation – I believe – of a novel by Norwegian thriller writer Jo Nesbø, whose work seems to have taken off in the wake of the success of Steig Larrsson. Though I am not a reader of thrillers, or novels actually, I know that Nesbø is well known in Scandinavia for a series of novels about recurring characters, but Headhunters is a stand-alone story.

As directed with style, pace and wit by Morten Tyldum (who appears to have very little in the way of form, but will be in demand now, one guesses), Headhunters is a bold, bloody, brutal but deadpan-comedic thriller about a recruitment exec who compensates for his short stature by stealing art and paying for the high life he believes his trophy wife requires in order to stay with him. The actor who brings him so brilliantly to life, and without a hint of vanity, is Aksel Hennie, who has the look of a young Christopher Walken and Steve Buscemi about him, and who must now be in line for some juicy Hollywood parts.

The book is already being made into an American version, although as Philip French notes, Hollywood will be hard pushed to recapture the unique atmosphere of the original. It is, to be blunt, so Scandinavian. The architecture, the forestry, that all pervading crisp, clean, grey melancholia … if you liked Danish imports The Killing and Borgen, and have a penchant for Swedish cinema ranging from Bergman to Moodyson, as I do, you’ll know what I mean. I remember seeing the Norwegian original of Insomnia, and it forever affected how seriously I could take the otherwise well-made American remake.

Anyway, it’s not about national cinema, it’s about a fantastically fast-paced unfolding nightmare, which is leavened throughout with scatalogical schlock and dry wit (including, at one insane stage, a tractor chase, with a certain ghoulish detail that I won’t spoil). As a story, packed with twists and turns, it has “novel” written right through it, and the outcome is both surprising and one of those that has you slapping your own forehead and going, “Of course!”

A mealy-mouthed two-star review in the Guardian had me worried, but I think Paul MacInnes who reviewed it was having a very bad day when he saw it. Headhunters is bloody great, and had the audience in the Curzon chuckling and wincing in equal measure. Go and see it before the Americans misidentify what made it great and just do a fast-paced thriller version without the septic tank bit.

This – German-Norwegian – and Le Havre – Finnish-French – have been my favourite films of the festival so far. Now it’s off to Soho for This Must Be The Place – Italian-French-Irish – and Into The Abyss – American, but by a German director.

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.)