Director: Richard Eyre
Stars: Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Fionn Whitehead
Released: 24th August 2018 (UK)
Whenever my legal and media worlds cross paths the results tend to be interesting. Like the time I went from care proceedings in Ipswich county court to judging a heat of the Miss Universe beauty pageant then owned by one Mr D. Trump. But I digress.
Last year Emma Thompson sat at the back of the President’s courtroom during a case in which I was representing one of the parties. She’d come to observe one of the family division’s lady justices in action as part of her research for a new film she was preparing to star in. Then, a few weeks ago I saw the film The Children Act at a press screening.
Emma Thompson (Saving Mr Banks, Beauty and the Beast) plays Mrs Justice Fiona Maye, a family law judge tasked with deciding the fate of a young man who is in hospital refusing to have the blood transfusion that could save his life. Adam, two months short of his 18th birthday, so still legally a child, has cancer and is desperately ill but he also has religious beliefs which do not allow him to undertake the treatment he needs. As a Jehovah’s Witness Adam (Fionn Whitehead) believes that his blood is the essence of what makes him human. He doesn’t want to mix that blood with that of another person. The doctors say that without the transfusion Adam risks renal failure, blindness and an agonising death. However, Adam and his parents played by Ben Chaplin and Eileen Walsh, stand firm.
It falls to Justice Maye to decide whether to go against the clear wishes of an articulate, intelligent teenager and determine that his welfare, as her paramount consideration under the Children Act, requires that the hospital forcibly give him the transfusion or to accede to his impassioned arguments and let him die.
Following the recent cases of Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans which made headlines worldwide and polarised the public, the story is topical and the moral, legal, ethical arguments raised by it are very real.
It’s somewhat surprising then how little this film plays to the emotions of the audience. While there are moving moments, such as when Justice Maye goes to the bedside of Adam to hear from him directly, overall the film runs briskly through the opposing arguments with a curious sense of detachment.
Justice Maye meanwhile becomes a little too involved with the case and this steers the story in an implausible direction which weakens the central life or death premise. The latter could have been explored in greater depth with a searing focus on the intense pressure judges in these cases come under as their every word and decision is scrutinised by a sensationalist media, religious bodies and the unforgiving and shrill court of public opinion on social media. Instead, Adam’s case is too sanitised and clinical to fully engage with.
Similarly the subplot of the judge’s floundering marriage doesn’t quite work. Stanley Tucci has the thankless role of the husband of a strong, high achieving woman who spends his time either being supportive and proud or moping because she doesn’t have time for him. The cliches are all here (even though cliches can be true to life); workaholic, childless woman, strong and powerful in her career, unable to hold a relationship together in her personal life. Predictably the two elements of the judge’s life come together via the case – the childless, successful woman deciding the life or death of a child. What deeply repressed emotions and desires will come to the surface? How much of the decision making is professional and how much personal?
This is a world of lawyers with upper lips as stiff as the collars they dress up in, of polite, unrevealing language and hardback books full of ancient laws. ‘Have you ever been wild and free?’ Mrs Justice Maye asks her clerk at one point as she ponders her own lost youth.
Emma Thompson’s performance, without doubt, elevates this film from what might have been a tv drama to a cinematic feature. Her research in the Royal Courts of Justice last year paid off. She produces a meticulously accurate portrayal of a High Court judge. She’s got the facial expressions while listening to witnesses giving oral evidence down to a tee. Her elegant black suits in court and colourful evening wear, hair and mannerisms are all on point.
Like me, lawyers will probably watch The Children Act wearing both their lawyer’s hat and that of the layman film-goer. With the first they will be checking to see if the depiction of the legal process is accurate ( or as accurate as a dramatised version can be). And with the second will want to be engaged in the story and be moved, amused, angered, touched by it as appropriate.
They might find it, then, to be a film of two halves. The legal aspect is largely accurate with considerable attention to detail. The film is shot on location and the RCJ and Grays Inn have rarely looked as impressive and imposing while even High Holborn is given a certain romantic glow. (Incidentally, lawyers fretting about why a family judge is shown dressed in robes in the trailer for The Children Act need not worry. There is a reason for it).
The drama aspect doesn’t quite take off, either in the court case at the heart of the story or in the subsequent attempt at a tepid stalker thriller. However, overall, this is a well made, finely acted, intelligently scripted film which isn’t a sequel or the umpteenth instalment in a superhero franchise and for that alone it deserves to be supported.
The Little Stranger ★★★★
Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to.
Released: 21st September 2018
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill
Reviewed By: Sinead Beverland
Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to. At the helm is Room Director Lenny Abrahamson, with an impressive cast including Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Charlotte Rampling.
Set shortly after the second world war, Doctor Faraday (Gleeson) introduces us to the faded grandeur of Hundreds Hall, a place he envied feverishly as a child. Having belonged to the Ayres family for several generations, the house is now inhabited by just Mrs Ayres (Rampling) and her two adult children, Roderick (Will Poulter) and Caroline (Wilson). When Faraday is called to the house to visit the unwell young housemaid Betty, he recollects his childhood adulation of the place. Remembering the presence of a young girl, he is told that this was Mrs Ayres first daughter, Susan, who had died as a child. It seems the spectre of Susan (affectionately known as Suki) still lays heavily over the house, as housemaid Betty tells Faraday she fears something ‘isn’t right’. As he becomes more entwined with the family and their home, strange events begin to raise concerns and individually threaten members of the family.
From the very outset, the film breeds an unsettling feeling, the house is imposing with long shots conveying the sense that the characters are being observed. The audience follows Faraday in to this fading world of status and money, sensing his childhood desire and starched formality. The family are equally intriguing and unnerving. Roderick, badly injured during the war, is now an invalid struggling to cope and disturbed by the sense that something in the house does not want him there. Matriarch Mrs Ayres seems to be doing her best to keep the past alive and daughter Caroline (the best of the bunch as attested to by a fellow doctor) seems strong yet vulnerable. When Faraday begins an intriguing friendship with Caroline, their relationship evolves to hinge the entire ethereal story together. With fantastic performances all round, the characters all emerge fully formed, conveying depth without the need for swathes of expository back story.
The terror of the film gradually reveals itself, impacting in set scenes that are truly disturbing and realistic. Director Abrahamson has a subtle touch (as seen in the Oscar Nominated Room) and these climactic scenes engulf you, whilst revealing the fate of certain characters. Abrahamson knows how to accentuate the fear for the audience and uses restraint to devastating effect. As the house leaks secrets and the memory of the deceased Susan comes to the forefront, the story is told with an intensity that uses strikingly rich music and extreme close ups to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. However, to reveal too much of the story here, would spoil the experience of discovering for yourself what is happening at Hundreds Hall.
The Little Stranger is a mature and nuanced film, layered in such a way that it address status and class alongside desire and emotion. The period setting is detailed and worn, bridging the gap between transitioning eras in Britain. This is no straightforward horror or ghost story and the film certainly feels to have done justice to its excellent source material. Rich in theme, characters and style, I would gladly take The Little Stranger home.
Released: 19th October 2018
Directed By: Matteo Garrone
Starring: Marcello Fonte
Reviewed By: Rhys Handley
Dogman is the anti-Paddington. Antithetical to the marmalade-loving bear’s enduring mantra – “if we are kind and polite, the world will be right” – dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) carves out a life in the dilapidated outskirts of Rome modestly tending to his estate’s canine residents and enjoying the respect of his neighbours.
But Marcello’s submissive, accommodating kindness is pushed closer and closer to its limit by the hulking Simone (a terrifying Edoardo Pesce, surely masked in near-mutant prosthetic), a brutish ex-boxer who stalks the estate terrorising the residents. Unable to say no to a friend, Marcello facilitates Simone’s egregious coke habit to little recompense.
When Simone’s scheme to rob a nearby jeweller’s implicates Marcello and he is apprehended by the police, the Dogman takes the fall himself and goes inside for a year for the sake of the bully who pretends to be his friend. When he comes out, something has changed.
Marcello, diminutive and always sporting a toothy grin, strikes an unimpressive, but likeable figure. He is perfectly happy with his lot as the film opens – a divorced father who takes pride in his work and loves trips to the beach with his daughter. While director Matteo Garrone makes a meal of the grim, filthy aesthetic of the film’s setting, he peppers in moments of levity and blissful tranquility to reinforce the humble satisfaction of Marcello’s daily life.
To see him repeatedly indulge the cruel, selfish whims of Simone quickly becomes a source of frustration, as the brute encourages vices in Marcello that seems entirely at odds with his persona. Marcello is swept away on break-ins and hedonistic strip club nights in jarring scenes more in keeping with Garrone’s work in the gangster canon such as 2008’s Gomorrah.
In these scenes, the toxicity fuelling Marcello reveals itself. Fonte delicately skews the kindly facade when Marcello enters Simone’s world. Behind his courteous smile is a sickening glimmer of delight – Marcello loves the thrill and decadence of life of crime. His latent desires mix with his better nature, to create something more insidious than Simone’s overt depravity.
Dogman stumbles in its closing chapter as Marcello is released from prison, returning to a community who despises him for violating their trust and chasing Simone’s false offers of brotherhood and fortune. Marcello reemerges not exactly changed, but more honest to himself about what he is. Garrone and his co-writers steer this portion of the story with a steady hand, but it is hard to shake comparisons to other established squares-gone-rogue like Walter White.
Marcello’s resolve and vengefulness is convincing thanks to Fonte, but its emergence is sudden and teeters dangerously close to cliche. His push and pull with Simone is rote, which makes its languid pace a little irritating – this has suddenly become a very different film, and it can’t carry the slower moments of contemplation as well as it could before Marcello was locked up.
An inevitable confrontation takes place, bursting with brutality and gore. But rather than a release of tension, it feels like a betrayal of the thoughtful, measured character piece Garrone set up. The violence overreaches for shock value where Garrone had before been satisfied with something more pensive and empathetic.
Luckily, he pulls back in the final moments of the film and dovetails elegantly by concluding what is essentially his thesis on ‘little guy’ psychology. He frames Marcello not as a good man pushed too far, but as someone whose better and worse natures are intrinsically tangled to create a monster very different to the bully who ultimately leads him to snap.
No matter how kind and polite the Dogman might try to be, he cannot deny the malice that festers in his heart – and Garrone artfully distills Marcello’s melancholic final moment of self-realisation in a resonant closing shot that gracefully irons out the kinks in this curious, inconsistent little film.
Director X’s flashy remake of the Blaxploitation classic is a thunderingly dull experience
Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, BlackKklansman – it’s proving an impressive year for top-tier studio-driven black cinema. The perfect year, as it happens, to release a remake of seventies Blaxploitation classic Super Fly. Or, at least, it would be, if the determining creative mantra behind this update weren’t presumably anything more than to make an episode of Power with all the stylistic glimmer of a P. Diddy video.
Superfly (neatly bringing the title right up to autocorrect standard by repositioning itself as a single word) sees Grown-ish star Trevor Jackson take on the iconic role of the hustling dealer trying to earn his way out of the game – albeit in a newly millennial take that supplants the character’s own drug use for what appear to be Sherlock-level powers of information gathering on anyone he might need to manipulate, charm, or blindside. He also sports the most incredible head of hair this side of Josh Brolin.
Alex Tse’s screenplay sees no gain in revisiting any of the subversive terrain that made Super Fly the enduring classic it became, his ambitions outright stopping at the point his writing could passably sell a made-for-cable urban crime series (such as – to pick a name out of a hat – Power?). Beyond that it falls to director Director X (of the Toronto Xs) and star Jackson to bring the proverbial funk, and – though X really knows how to sell a music video with all the tonal swagger of John Singleton’s Shaft remake (though, noticeably, none of its darkness or consideration) – Jackson simply isn’t a strong enough presence to sell the supposed gravitas of his lead. It’s a weakness no amount of style or gunfire can distract from, and it sinks Superfly dead.
There’s a top-shelf supporting cast in there, with the likes of Jason Mitchell, Michael K. Williams, and Rick Ross turning up for their two cents and subsequently failing in tandem to elevate this dross to become anything close to worthy of standing in its own brand’s shadow. Expectedly enough, it sports a kickass hip-hop soundtrack – with rapper (and the film’s producer) Future offering up a bevy of atmospherically charging beats to ensure you’re at least bored to music, though there is something faintly amusing (outside of context) about hearing an entire cast prattle on about wanting to wipe out “the Snow Patrol”, like they’re working for the NME in 2005.
Twenty years from now, film historians will likely regard Superfly in the same manner as we currently regard Gus van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho or Stallone’s 2000 remake of Get Carter – that it’s a pointless creation that completely missed the cultural point of its own iconic original – and they’ll be right to do so. Provided they remember that Superfly even existed in the first place – which they, and you, would be decidedly better off not.
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