Review: ‘Lady Macbeth’ (2016)

Full of sound and fury.

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Katherine (Florence Pugh) has been promised in marriage to a much older man (Paul Hilton). She looks startlingly child-like, clad in a white lace wedding dress and delicate veil, as “worthless” as the land she has been sold with. Her husband forbids her from venturing too far from the house, in spite of her love of the outdoors. She is a caged possession, and, curiously, one that seems to bring her captor almost no joy.

Lady Macbeth is quite minimalist – there is little in the way of music or dialogue, and yet it maintains its darkly riveting atmosphere throughout. The film was adapted from the Nikolai Leskov novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk, but to suggest that it has little to do with Shakespeare would be false. One of the film’s greatest strengths is its ability to evoke the characterisation of the original play’s anti-heroine, and, indeed, some of the symbolic narrative moments, without ever mentioning the bard’s name. It is one of those curious films where, without its title, it would likely be read very differently.

The most striking thing we first notice about our protagonist, Katherine, is her perpetual boredom. Confined to a dusty house and trapped in a sexless, loveless marriage, all she can do is drift about aimlessly, perch on windowsills and fall asleep at inappropriate times. The image of her sitting in the centre of a sofa, adorned in a stunning gown and slowly nodding off is a powerful visual motif that gives us a little taste of her permanent, listless apathy. This is a woman who refuses to bow down to a patriarchal ideal, but is also not an innocent. Her violent actions, combined with the oppressive state that she is forced to bear creates a wonderful amorality within the film. Florence Pugh handles the character by walking a perfect line between sympathy and repulsion – she is never fully an innocent, yet she is clearly bursting with repressed sexual desire and lust for life. Stellar performances from the supporting cast are an invaluable asset to this film, including Katherine’s lover (Cosmo Jarvis) but especially Naomi Ackie, who plays the servant Anna. Her quiet, disbelieving horror makes to the perfect witness to Katherine’s terrible crimes. It is also worth noting that this film has a large percentage of black actors in a setting that many contemporary filmmakers have historically used to excuse employing all-white casts. The presence of many black characters does not feel anachronistic here and is artfully unobtrusive, suggesting that representation can be a rather effortless achievement.

Visually, Lady Macbeth is exquisite. The rural country is cold, damp, and muddy, and the house is dry, dusty and far too clean. Melbourne-based cinematographer, Ari Wegner, deserves a mention for her rigorous attention to detail in the composition of each frame. The film is also interwoven with various visual symbols – chiefly, Katherine’s wedding ring. It is the most prominent item of jewelry she wears, and the hand which adorns it is often positioned front-and-centre within a shot. The ring’s meaning is changed as it moves through the film – from a symbol of entrapment within a marriage to broken wedding vows. There is a certain stillness to these moments in the film, which similarly moves from uncomfortable to threatening as familiar scenes are revisited with new twists.

Lady Macbeth is not without fault – the narrative turns will likely be anticipated even by a moderately experienced film-goer – but it remains an example of how to effectively create atmosphere, tension, and utter horror while obscuring its moral politics. This is a film without a true villain, a true hero, or a reasonable line between right and wrong, and therein lies its power.

Review ‘The Childhood of a Leader’ (2015)

An ambitious, conceptual debut.

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The Childhood of a Leader begins with the sounds of an orchestra warming up. A conductor’s voice cuts through the cacophony – “Okay, let’s try this please”. Cut to a title card with the word ‘Overture’ as powerful music swells with the anticipation of the spectator. This film marks the directional debut of actor-turned-director Brady Corbet, and he certainly doesn’t hold back. Indeed, as a directional debut, the phrase “let’s try this” is a neat summary. Whether the film follows through on its ambitious premise, however, is another matter.

Based on a Jean-Paul Sartre novel of the same name, The Childhood of a Leader relies on its synopsis being quite possibly its biggest draw – a portrait of a young boy who is destined to become a fascist dictator. The aforementioned orchestral score, penned by the masterful Scott Walker, thrills us with its dramatic tones and promises a suitably grand film to follow. Aside from the musical score, the film’s other technical marvel is the unorthodox use of the camera. During quiet scenes it is still, but during more tumultuous moments it sways, circles, rolls and is generally unpredictable. It also sometimes switches to a foggy point-of-view shot that is occasionally ambiguous in its connection to the general narrative. It is this fresh take on the movement of camera, coupled with the unusual subject matter, that truly elevates the film. We know we are about to see something that will evoke the most popular representation of political evil possible, and so the actual film that materialises is rather unexpected. The question of how a child becomes a monster is not at all answered. Instead, The Childhood of a Leader captures a fairly straightforward childhood, and therein lies all its power.

The film is divided into three acts, each culminating with a tantrum. Though structurally such a premise indicates an energetic build-up, the pace of film is, in fact, rather quiet and slow. The tantrums manifest as small moments of explosive behaviour, not nearly as intriguing as one might expect. To substitute, it is the boy’s persistent aura of barely-suppressed rage that drives the film. That, and his unexplained anger towards nearly everyone who crosses his path, especially those closest to him. It is no exaggeration to say that Tom Sweet, who plays the ten-year-old Prescott, carries this film. For one so young he exercises remarkable restraint, easily outshining the highly accomplished adults of the cast – who include Robert Pattinson, Bérénice Bejo, Stacy Martin and Liam Cunningham. Sweet effortlessly turns the character of a spoilt brat into a sympathetic, almost accidental villain.

Prescott’s childhood may be straightforward, but it is by no means ordinary. For starters, this boy enjoys an extremely comfortable life of privilege – in an economic, social and political sense. He casually strolls about an enormous French mansion, complete with staff. He is a passer-by in the life of his father, whose career ties to Woodrow Wilson mark him as an important man. Indeed, at one point an unofficial cabinet meeting is held in the boy’s house (and it truly is his house) in such an intrusive manner that it is easy to see how one so young can become entangled in a sphere of political influence. But Prescott doesn’t seek so much to understand as to control – an idea that resurfaces over and over.

Even the introduction to this child character is beset by violence. He tosses stones carelessly – yet intentionally – at innocent parishioners. Crucially, this is not a story about a child allowed to run amuck – that would be too easy. Prescott is routinely punished for his bad behaviour – the stone-throwing incident results in a display of public humiliation as he is forced to apologise to every parishioner after a nativity play. Similarly, a scene which involves the young boy exposing himself to his father results in an unrelentingly violent beating. Prescott is always testing the waters. He plays at games he does not fully understand with his immature notions of violence, sexuality and emotional cruelty. Yet his sociopathy is an astoundingly effective tool that he wields to manipulate those he knows. What choice does he have? This is a child who only friend is his nurse, a child who endures a permanent loneliness and whose parents are permanently detached.

So, who is the child meant to be? In terms of an actual historical figure, that is. He cannot be Hitler, Stalin, or Mussolini, whose collective childhoods were nothing like his. Indeed, he cannot really be any one dictator. He is the perfect amalgamation of a fictional evil-mastermind coupled with the polarising otherness of a child. The enigmatic symbols of red flags during the film’s finale intensify this deliberately equivocal take on history. Perhaps The Childhood of  Leader is at its most ambitious during the reveal of the grown up Prescott (Pattinson), with his uncannily twitching eyes and illogical orders. It is only by transposing the behaviour of a young boy onto an adult that we can truly see the monstrous child for what it is.

Review: ‘Their Finest’ (2016)

A sweet and moderately unexpected drama.

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One of the first things our protagonist in Their Finest learns is that truth can be twisted for film, and indeed, has to be. This is a brilliant set-up for exploring two distinct ideas –  of forgotten women in wartime and of the distortion of reality through film.When it comes to charm, Their Finest is practically bursting with it. The basic premise is this: set in the 1940s, Gemma Arterton plays Catrin Cole, a former secretary who is appointed as a scriptwriter to work on a propaganda film about the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk.

Catrin is based loosely on the real-life Diana Morgan, a Welsh screenwriter who is mostly associated with her work for Ealing Studios. Catrin is first commissioned to write the “slop”, that is, the women’s dialogue in the film. She is forced to endure a relentless barrage of casual misogyny, from the fact that she will not be credited for her work to simply not being taken seriously by actors and producers alike – “and obviously we can’t pay you as much as the chaps”, remarks Roger Swain (Richard E. Grant) rather coldly. Yet carry on she does, and mid-way through a remarkable shift occurs as she begins to realise that her work is indispensable.

The film-within-the-film is being developed for propaganda purposes, and as such a suitable story about working-class heroes must be located. Head writer Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) believes he’s found one when he learns of two twin sisters who supposedly stole their alcoholic father’s boat in order to join the legendary Dunkirk rescue. Upon investigation by Catrin, it becomes clear that the real story is not quite so heroic. Indeed, the film’s presentation of these two poor, humble women starkly contrasts with the glamorised retelling of their story that later emerges. Catrin extracts the bare elements of truth from their narrative in order to appeal to the producers – a clear example of how reality is distorted in the cinema. Even her fabricated story is further twisted – characters are added, removed, roles are changed – until the original tale is unrecognisable. Such is the nature of cinema, Their Finest seems to say, for better or for worse.

There is, all the same, a present sympathy for the restrictive nature of working on a propaganda film. After all, many of the changes are out of the screen-writers’ hands, forced upon them by government bodies, or made necessary due to public perception of the roles of men and women. A hilariously clueless American RAF pilot is forced to join the cast, causing major (and humorous) delays with his inability to act at all. Luckily, the rest of the fictional cast is very competent, none more so than Ambrose Hilliard (Nighy). Hilliard is an aging actor who is better remembered for the past glory he achieved as a young man: he is a character of delicate pride, a thespian in every sense. When he is asked to play the role of drunken Uncle Frank, he refuses as he is repelled by the idea of an old man being played for laughs. It is only through Catrin’s careful persuasion that he eventually agrees to the part – and his eventual devotion to her is wonderfully paternal. Hilliard himself is a distinctly British character, with a few odd quirks and an undeniable charm that worms its way into even the iciest of hearts.

Their Finest is packed with what may be one of the best-known casts of the year. Lead superbly by Gemma Arterton and supported by Bill Nighy, Richard E Grant, Helen McCrory and Rachel Stirling, this is a film that although uncomplicated, manages to throw some surprising punches. The set pieces lend each scene a delightful tea-and-biscuit quietude and earnestness. The resulting sense of comfort becomes sorely needed as certain elements of the story take a turn for the worse. This is a war drama after all, and death thwarts happiness, purity and love. Death comes suddenly, it is shocking and often gory. One particular scene sees Catrin nearly hit by an airstrike. She is shocked to find human limbs scattered around her, until she recognises them as parts from shop-window dummies, laughing with relief. Then, she finds the real bodies. There could not be a better summing-up of the wartime experience of women – staggering from fear to absurdity to grief in rapid waves of raw emotion.

One death, however, plays out almost like a tragicomedy. Catrin’s lover stumbles unknowingly into direct danger, lacking any kind of peripheral vision that spurs an urgent need for the spectator to cry behind you! in pantomimic fashion. Despite the utterly silly circumstances of his death, the resulting spell of grief is as touching and believable as possible. Arterton carries the role with a dignified sort of restraint that allows just enough flexibility to convey her sadness without resorting to petty wallowing. Catrin is the definition of a leading woman; her final victory is the ability to rewrite the roles of the twin sisters to inspire women in cinemas forever. Though simple in style, Their Finest is both elegant and incredibly funny, destined to enamour even the stoniest heart.

Review: ‘Casting JonBenet’ (2017)

A brilliant documentary about the leftovers, rather than the event.

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How does one make a documentary film about a tragedy for which there will never be a satisfying culprit? Quite simply, one engages instead with the subconscious effect the tragedy had on the local populace. Enter Casting JonBenet, a film by Australian director Kitty Green, who uses an alternative angle to dissect an already convoluted story.

The film uses the premise of an audition for a ‘JonBenet’ film as the catalyst to getting its actors talking on the subject. Wisely, Casting JonBenet avoids pointing the finger at any one suspect. Instead, it allows those auditioning (deliberately chosen for their loose connections to the actual incident) to point hundreds of fingers in wild, strange, and often completely illogical directions. Their anecdotes are touching, flawed, sometimes disturbing and sometimes hilarious. They share a common trait: a human response to a cold and brutal murder. Most importantly, their stories reveal that the gossip surrounding JonBenet does not entirely evade reality – it is in fact the only truth the public will ever know.

There is an incredible surrealism to the production. Each actor is fully costumed, and surrounded by a full set. Their anecdotal evidence is punctuated by scenes wherein each one recreates the events leading up to, or following the murder. Through the metaphor of each actor imposing their experience on the part, we realise that a similar phenomenon has happened to the Ramsey family since the day of JonBenet’s death. These scenes appear highly stylised, which perhaps renders the pure emotion of the actors even more heartbreaking – many of them knew the Ramseys, or have experience with death. The film goes further, and touches on the cultural nightmare of child pageants, and the woes of sexualising children.

What this astounding documentary highlights is that sometimes what remains in the aftermath of a crime is just as horrifying as the crime itself. In every attempt to reenact the murder, we see a glimmer of what might have been, the endless possibilities of an unsolved case. Casting JonBenet is above all else a cautionary tale, a warning against the potential dangers brought about by domestic malaise.

Short Review: ‘Free Fire’ (2016)

A one-trick pony.

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What begins as a film with punchy promise soon becomes a dull shoot-out. This is unfortunate, because Free Fire is loaded with potential, especially given the intriguing early scenes of the film. There’s the fantastic arms deal set-up, which introduces us to each of the characters (some more distinct than others), as tensions escalate over a stock mix-up. Then there’s the delightfully uneasy moment that the guns are tested, and characters visibly jump. How disappointing, then, that when bullets start flying for real, all excitement is lost. Irritatingly, characters are slow to die and never seem to die properly. They rarely change cover, and when they do it actually breathes a little bit of life into the film. Mildly silly one-liners are bandied about here and there, but quickly lose their ability to crack a smile. Free Fire is a film that overstays its welcome, and makes you forget that it was even welcome in the first place.

Review: ‘Raw’ (‘Grave’) (2016)

A refreshingly female-focused bloodbath.

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Julia Ducournau‘s coming-of-age film Raw has reportedly made audiences at certain film festivals faint with horror. In reality, the film is hardly that gruesome, and its unfortunate reputation should not distract from excellent craftsmanship and its complicated expression of the feminine rite of passage.

This is an impressive feature debut from Ducournau, who utilises lead actress Garance Marillier’s performative flexibility. Who else could make the leap from vegetarian virgin to cannibalistic seductress in such a brief space of time, and still retain the character’s integrity? Interestingly, this film shies away from the classic female monster trope, instead rendering our protagonist as an entirely sympathetic one, caught between the virtuous ideal and the monstrous instinct. Rather than inspiring terror herself, our protagonist’s tragic journey leaves us most concerned for her shame.

It is no coincidence that this film is set at a veterinary college. There is a sly suggestion that there is no difference between the animal and the human – even that a raped monkey suffers the same trauma as a raped woman. The film goes further, suggesting that it is explicitly the women who share this connection. The animal isn’t insidious, it just follows its natural drive – and likewise our leading women take different approaches to combating their urges with their moral compasses. Raw challenges the notion that a woman with desire is a monster, encouraging us to see the human smile behind the bloody lips. This is a masterfully feminist film, and should not missed.

Review: ‘Get Out’ (2017)

A compelling satire about racial tensions in the US and everywhere.

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“You can ask a white person to see the world through the eyes of a black person for an hour and a half.” Those are the words of director Jordan Peele, a perfect summary of his impressive debut, Get Out. This is a film that dances between nervous laughter and fear, an elaborate metaphor for the modern nightmare of living in a black body.

There is an astute fixation with sight in this film. Protagonist Chris is a photographer, using his eyes to create art. What we see as viewers is shown through his own (often harrowing) point-of-view shots. Peele uses lines of sight to magnify the imbalances of power – who is allowed to look, and at what, becomes crucial. Eyes play a significant role, too, in revealing the way that black bodies are objectified. After all, race is often perceived by what is seen, and indeed, Chris visibly relaxes when he finds himself in the company of a blind man. This character claims to be indifferent to colour, not unlike the white liberal parents who manage to erase and deny the reality of the black experience.

Perhaps most unsettling is the presence of the uncannily delighted black servants in the family. These characters have been stripped of their collective history, and without it they are socially white, failing to recognise any of the black cultural codes when Chris interacts with them. Notably, the oddly-dressed Logan matches Chris’ fist-bump with a cordial handshake. All horror films require a villain, and here it can only be whiteness. This is a radical film in the sense that white people are ultimately held accountable for every subtle prejudice, every fetishisation and attempt to reprogram black people for white purposes.

A lot more could be said about the film’s deliberate subversion of classic horror tropes. Horror has traditionally meant an attack on otherness, though possibly this otherness has never been quite so eloquently expressed. The last few moments of the film even acknowledge viewer expectations while gently side-stepping them, providing a satisfying resolution to the tension. Get Out will make white viewers cringe and squirm, as it absolutely should. Finally, black men have been given a protagonist that evades stereotypes and attacks systematic oppression. His insurrection is a raw, poetic defiance.