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The Children Act ★★★

A well made, finely acted, intelligently scripted film that deserves to be supported.

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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.

Movie Reviews

Bad Times at the El Royale ★★★★

Bad Times at the El Royale feels like a throwback to Tarantino in all his 90’s pomp.

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Director: Drew Goddard

Stars: Dakota Johnson, Cynthia Erivo, Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Lewis Pullman

Released: 12th October 2018 (UK)

Bad Times at the El Royale has seemingly fallen foul of the particularly hectic October release schedule in the U.K. As Venom and A Star is Born dominate the box-office and with the London Film Festival in full swing, El Royale has not received the recognition it deserves.

Boasting an impressive cast, Bad Times at the El Royale follows seven strangers whose stories intertwine at the El Royale hotel in Lake Tahoe. As each person’s agenda for being at the El Royale is revealed, tensions inevitably rises and the characters collide.

From the get-go, El Royale feels like a throwback to Tarantino in all his 90’s pomp. Director Drew Goddard, no stranger to managing madness following his debut A Cabin in the Woods, has crafted an immersive, intricately linked murder-mystery that feels like a grindhouse version of Cluedo. The violence is garish but necessary, the dialogue is short and snappy and the characters are most importantly, interesting. The hardest part of any film with so many moving parts, is making the audience actually bond with those involved. Goddard, who also wrote the screenplay, has nailed this – giving enough back-story for each, whilst holding enough back to keep us learning more.

Between Jeff Bridge’s bad-ass priest, Dakota Johnson’s kill-happy hippy and Chris Hemsworth’s dancing cult-leader, the wider cast have somehow managed to create a credible on-screen dynamic, despite the stark character contrasts. Cynthia Erivo’s soulful singer Darlene is the obvious standout and her interactions with Bridge’s Father Flynn provide some of the most film’s most satisfying scenes. Lewis Pullman’s unassuming concierge Miles is another strong performance deserving of a mention.

The film swaggers along accompanied by its killer soundtrack, which plays a crucial part in the films tonal change from chapter to chapter. It’s dark and violent, yet at times it’s engaging and even emotional. The sharp edits that mash-up the timeline don’t over-complicate the plot, but accentuate the frenzied feeling that Goddard is creating as we head towards the plot’s crescendo.

As expected there are some areas where a film with so much going on inevitably suffers. Jon Hamm’s Seymour is arguably the biggest victim of this, with his character perhaps not utilised as much as it could have been. The film also feels a little too fleshed out in parts, lingering on some of the less necessary aspects and leaving one or two plotlines unexplored as a result.

Bad Times at the El Royale really does feel like a Tarantino movie and that’s no mean feat, Goddard has taken his own style and applied tried and tested techniques to create a compelling, genuinely exciting movie and one that deserves to be enjoyed by a wider audience.

 

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Arctic ★★★★

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Released: 5 December 2018

Directed by: Joe Penna

Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma Smáradóttir

Reviewed by: Lauren Tina Brady

An expanse of white as far as the eye can see, gently sloping mountains in the horizon, a polar bear pads silently across the snow, pausing briefly to gaze back at the watching man across the valley.

At first Arctic reads as a classic survival narrative; the basic man vs. nature conundrum. I’d recently seen The Mountain Between Us, which draws some very obvious similarities; plane crash, hostile snowy environment, a great expanse needing to be crossed for a chance of survival. However, unlike relying on the pairing of Kate Winslet and Idris Elba for context,  Arctic’s dialogue is bare. This is largely due to the fact that there is only the protagonist for the first third of the film, played by Mads Mikkelsen.

At first it appears to lull you into that false sense of security of knowing exactly how this works out; he sticks to a routine of catching fish, laying out black rocks spelling ‘help’ against the snow and signalling for nearby aircraft. However, crucially, we don’t know who he is. He speaks very little, in both Danish and English. He offers no information to help us piece together a backstory and remains an enigma throughout, which feels fresh. The character becomes more than a person; he becomes the flicker of hope for survival, the spectrum of emotions that occur in the darkest of hours.

There is plenty of drama to keep us on the edge of our seats; he has a chance of escape quite early on – a small helicopter has spotted him and attempts to make it’s way towards him in strong winds leading to a crash. There are two people on board; one is killed with the other, a woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir), who survives but is badly hurt and must be cared for. Suddenly the odds of both surviving are halved; the danger is intensified.

Here is a tale of endurance over survival. This is where Mikkelsen excels; he digs deep to portray every possible emotion through a gruelling and ice-cold journey. He is silent but his face says everything. I laughed in delight, I wept quietly. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing this role.

It’s a feat for Joe Penna, directing his feature film debut. See it for Mikkelsen, stay for the sensitive direction and the stunning cinematography.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Museum ★★★★

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Director: Alonso Ruizpalacios

Stars: Gael García Bernal, Leonardo Ortizgris, Alfredo Castro

Released: London Film Festival 2018

It’s Christmas Day, 1985. College dropouts Juan Nunez and Benjamin Wilson are ready to pull off an audacious heist that will have authorities searching for professional art thieves for years. Based on a true story, Alonso Ruizpalacios’ film sees the duo attempt to steal 140 priceless artefacts from the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Winner of the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay at Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year, Museum explores the mindsets of two would be criminals with nothing to lose.

The tale is narrated by Wilson, played with subtle compassion by Leonardo Ortizgris. Wilson’s role is much like Nick’s in The Great Gatsby, an opinionated and somewhat loyally biased eye through which Juan is diluted. Played by Gael Garcia Bernal, Juan is the film’s focus, a Mexican Cool Hand Luke drifting through his young adulthood. In the hands of another actor, Juan may have come off as entitled, lazy even, but Bernal’s performance layers the character with sympathetic naivety and relatable desire. A perennially youthful, multifaceted actor, Bernal paints buckets of emotion into every micro-expression.

The crime takes place after Christmas dinner, a lively family affair that sees Juan alienated and berated. At first, the silence is reminiscent of the hanging scene from Mission: Impossible; the tension equally palpable. But soon the action changes, pared back to a static style similar to the panels of a comic book. It is a technique repeated throughout the film, the continuity broken up into freeze frames that are not quite motionless, still alive with a touch of movement. Reducing these scenes to a childlike fantasy, Ruizpalacios succeeds in creating the ultimate sense of idyllic, youthful adventure.

Something often ignored in heist films is the aftermath, when the thieves must deal with the fallout of their decisions. Museum’s second act focuses on this aspect, allowing the introduction of an English art dealer, played by the superb Simon Russell Beale. Uncertainty builds from the start of their meeting, as the camera endlessly pans until Juan’s misguided perceptions come crashing down around him. In a script littered with intelligence and comedy, it is a pleasant surprise to see the characters’ raw emotion become the focal point.

Ruizpalacios seems content to pose questions that hang wispily in the air, unanswered: questions of cultural ownership, of morality and greed. He is more interested in the character study at the heart of this story, of a man who commits a crime out of boredom, a sense of nihilism or a desire for adventure, or perhaps a little of all three. It is a fresh idea in a crowded genre, making for a film that is impressive but never quite brilliant, a wonderful adventure that doesn’t aim to blow minds. But does that matter? As Juan says and Wilson relays: “Why let the truth ruin a good story?”, a sentiment Ruizpalacios takes quite literally. Luckily for him, Museum is without a doubt a good story.

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