The Case for Global Film

Discussing everything that isn't Hollywood (and a little that is).

Posts Tagged ‘thriller’

Waar (Strike, Pakistan 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 2 February 2014

On the shoot for WAAR, lead actor Shaan Shahid is on the left and director Bilal Lashari on the right.

On the shoot for WAAR, lead actor Shaan Shahid is on the left and director Bilal Lashari on the right.

I was looking for a foreign language film and this Pakistani film looked like it would fit the bill. I was surprised to discover that half the dialogue is actually in English (impeccable English as taught in the best schools in the country) and half in Urdu – not subtitled. All the recent Hindi and Tamil films I’ve seen in UK multiplexes have been subtitled in English and Waar seemed like a throwback to an earlier era. In terms of the technical quality of the production however this is a very modern film.

I went into the screening knowing only that the film was an action thriller based on ‘actual events’ involving the fight against terrorism in Pakistan. It was only afterwards that I learned that it had the biggest budget of any Pakistani film so far and that it was a box office smash in its domestic market after an Eid release in October 2013. I also read about the controversy generated by its seeming propaganda message about terrorism coming out of India.

The narrative of Waar has a familiar structure found in action thrillers from most film cultures. A ‘super agent’ Major Mujtaba (Shaan Shahid) comes out of retirement to take on a job that may well be ‘patriotic’ – to stop an international terrorist whose mission appears to be to cause havoc in Pakistan – but is also in some way ‘personal’. Was the terrorist also responsible for an attack on Mujtaba’s family? The ex-army Mujtaba is asked to join two younger agents from a special police squad, a brother (Hamza Ali Abbasi) and sister (she’s the IT expert and is played by Ayesha Khan). The terrorist ‘Ramal’ is played by Shamoon Abbasi and his ‘fixer’ (named ‘Laxmi’) by Meesha Shafi. I can’t really comment on the script by Hassan Waqas Rana since I couldn’t follow the scenes in Urdu. I should explain that all the military and police operational dialogue is in English (as is the conversation between the terrorist and his fixer) but all other dialogue is in Urdu and not subtitled. I’m at a loss as to what went on between the ‘commissioner’ of the terrorists attacks (who is hinted to be Indian) and a group of Islamist fighters up on the North West Frontier. Since the Taliban and the Indian armed forces are Pakistan’s two main potential enemies the connection makes sense but it would be good to know how the liaison is supposed to work.

The credits announce that a digital intermediate was processed by Technicolor in Bangkok and reports suggest a high number of VFX. IMDB states that a Red ONE camera was used and that the ratio was 2.35:1 – I thought that the presentation in Bradford was more like 1.85:1 (though the trailer below is 2.35:1). There is a colossal amount of weaponry on show and this seems to have been provided by the Pakistani military – fuelling the claims that the film is a propaganda statement. The young director Bilal Lashari trained at a film school in San Francisco and before this feature had mainly worked on music videos. The direction is accomplished in a technical sense but for me was portentous in terms of low and high angles with fast cutting matched to a heavy rock soundtrack (which was not to my taste at all). Lashari has said that he rarely watches Bollywood and that he is much more influenced by Hollywood. I can see that in his direction and I did feel that James Bond/Jason Bourne etc. were major influences – the film’s climax takes place on the roof of the convention centre in Islamabad. However, I felt that several of the actors, especially Shamoon Abbasi, could easily have fitted into a similarly-themed Hindi action thriller. Ironically the cinema played the trailer for Jai Ho with Salman Khan in the intermission and there was a distinct resemblance to Abbasi. Waar also features a musical interlude in which Ramal and Laxmi dance together – to a track with an English vocal.

Overall, I can’t say that I enjoyed the film but certain elements are distinctly impressive in terms of the choreography of the action (and the originality of the actions), including the sequence involving an audacious attack on a police academy (based on events at the Lahore Police Academy in 2009?). The central performances are good but I got bored with the explosions and almost fetishistic handling of weaponry. The lack of subtitles was annoying and I note that the director and producers have spoken about the decision to shoot half the film in English, suggesting that this was a mistake.  I don’t really understand why the whole film isn’t in Urdu with just occasional English – a convention in many similar language cinemas – and English subtitles. A sequel has already been announced so perhaps a different policy will be adopted the second time around. Waar has been seen as reviving a Pakistani film industry in decline. A country of 180 million people with a rich cultural tradition needs a functioning film industry so that must be a good thing. I just hope that the industry will be able to make a variety of films in future.

Here’s the official trailer:

 

Posted in Pakistani Cinema | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

I Saw the Devil (Akmareul boatda, South Korea, 2010)

Posted by nicklacey on 14 September 2013

Seeing and being evil

Seeing and being evil

Kim Jee-woon, director of A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) A Bittersweet Life (2005) and The Good, the Bad and the Weird (2008), has produced another stunning film. Stunning in both its direction, the acting and its content. It’s a revenge movie, a common trope it seems in Korean cinema (well Park Chan-wook excels in this), that mingles extreme imagery (females stripped, tortured and murdered) with beautiful composition and mise en scene. If that makes it seem that misogynist violence is aestheticised then that is accurate however, ultimately, the film uses the conventions of gorenography, or torture porn, to a morally devastating effect.

SPOILER ALERT: Lee Byung-hun plays a secret service agent whose fiancee is a victim of a serial killer, played by the brilliant Choi Min-sik (of Oldboy, 2003, fame) and seeks extra-judicial revenge. Despite the film’s 140 minute running length the killer is caught quickly and there’s one of those wonderful moments in a genre film where you have no idea where the film is going to go next. The killer is released only to be tracked and caught again, then released and so on… The dehumanising effect of revenge has been dealt with before but I doubt so successfully. Lee’s agent does save a number of potential victims as he chases down the killer but not before they’ve been put in peril and, no doubt, severely traumatised by the experience. The spectator’s complicity is highlighted in a Hitchockian manner: we wish to watch the film but that necessitates ‘people’ being placed in danger but, here, we cannot but wish the killer had been dealt with the moment he was caught. In other words, we are positioned not to want to watch the rest of the film.

I won’t give anything more away but the ending is truly devastating. For some reason (South) Korean cinema has slipped off my radar for a while but it’s definitely back on now. I can’t say I enjoyed watching this film, the brutality is visceral, and the violence-against-women trope disturbing, but the cumulative effect is extremely powerful in a positive sense. Apart from Kim’s dynamic direction, much is down to the performance of the protagonists: Choi’s charisma is cannily used as the killer who’s demented determination becomes almost admirable. In contrast Lee’s agent bottles up his emotions through most of the film making him appear to be the psychopath; but, then again, maybe he does become one.

Posted in Horror, Korean Cinema | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The East (US/UK 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 5 July 2013

Apparently 'spin the bottle' is popular in anarchist circles.

Apparently ‘spin the bottle’ is popular in anarchist circles.

The East is one of those films that tries to be ‘radical’ in a Hollywood context. It’s a Scott Free Production (Ridley Scott’s company with Tony Scott receiving a posthumous credit) released by Fox but generally discussed as coming  from its writer-director Zal Batmanglij and writer-star Brit Marling. The couple have already produced two earlier titles which I haven’t seen. This one didn’t work for me but it  is interesting in terms of its generic roots and some of its casting decisions.

Marling plays Sarah, an ex-FBI agent now working for a private intelligence/security organisation. Her task is to infiltrate an ‘eco-terrorist’ group called ‘The East’. The group organises ‘jams’ – stunts designed to extract vengeance in the biblical sense of ‘an eye for eye’ directed towards the owners and CEOs of corporations who have caused direct harm to communities through their commercial policies on pollution, (lack of) testing of products etc.

The scenario of police/’security’ officers on deep cover missions, often lasting several years, is news again in the UK at the moment and it is an interesting topic. But this fictional US story (though supposedly using some real news stories as material) is rather different in that the lead character seems able to leave the group and come back and operate with two separate identities. The film narrative draws on several older cycles of films from various genres, supplying plot lines and also characters and visualisations. I was reminded of scenes from Gattaca (the security company itself as a fortress – bland and corporate on the outside like the hospital in Coma). Much of the iconography of someone on the run/undercover around Washington DC is reminiscent of Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State. Not so much in plot terms but in its political implications the film reminds us of the cycle of paranoia thrillers from the early 1970s such as The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. Unfortunately, The East doesn’t carry the same disturbance factor for the audience.

‘The East’ is one of several separate ‘cells’ which are linked together. I didn’t really understand this and the politics of ‘anarchist’ groups is never properly represented or discussed. Crucially in terms of visualising the cell’s activities, The East appears to operate from a derelict house set in woodland somewhere on the Eastern seaboard. This gives the ‘community’ a ‘return to nature’ feel that one hand feels very traditional – the Thoreau-like sense of ‘real America’ – but also refers to Hollywood’s ideas about hippy communes, survivalist terrorists in the backwoods or perhaps survivors in some kind of post-apocalyptic dystopia. There is also a religious discourse that I have to confess I didn’t properly latch onto. Being ‘washed’ in the lake is a feature of being accepted by the group – as I read afterwards. I also didn’t understand what Sarah was doing all the time, but I read in other reviews that she is meant to be a committed Christian who listens to ‘Christian radio’ (I always wondered who listened to those stations or God TV – it seems a very unlikely pastime for an undercover agent). The most positive spin I can put on the woodland setting is that it reminded me of the final scenes of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 with the ‘rebels’ walking around the woods memorising books that have been burned in the outside world.

The big problem with the film is that the narrative form usually associated with this genre has only a few possible outcomes. The hero is usually either a counter-culture/radical character or a professional God-fearing American security officer. The latter can ‘win’ by closing down the terrorist cell, the former must die, get brainwashed or there must be a compromise that allows the corporate villains to be brought back into the capitalist fold. Hollywood can’t really countenance anything else. In this case Sarah’s character complicates the narrative in that she finds her own ‘third way’ of dealing with things. I won’t spoil the narrative development but it seemed naïve at best as a way of closing the narrative.

Ellen Page (left) and Brit Marling.

Ellen Page (left) and Brit Marling.

Ms Marling is clearly an intelligent woman who has written a strong female role for a thriller – but for me the star of the film should have been Ellen Page who is rather wasted in a smaller role. Having said that, Ms Page is very distinctive and doesn’t fade into the background well. Brit Marling’s Sarah goes undercover by lightening her hair but this means that she looks like she’s slumming it for most of the time and at the end of the film all I could think was that she looked ‘prissy’ in a skirt and blouse. I’m not sure why, but this seemed to be inappropriate in some way. But I don’t want to be too hard on the film. It is low-budget by Hollywood standards and has had only a limited release in the North America. In the UK it has got into multiplexes with 123 prints, just scraping into the Top 15.

The film is a US/UK production and from my perspective it is interesting that the other three main characters are played by a Canadian (Ellen Page), a Swede (Alexander Skarsgård) and a Yorkshireman (Toby Kebbell) – and very good they are too. I don’t think the film works but I’m pleased to see a real attempt to make this kind of film and I look forward to more films on topics like this.

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The Woman in the Fifth (La femme du Vème, France/UK/Poland 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 16 June 2013

Ethan Hawke as Tom Ricks. This is representative of compositions in the film which show the character often 'penned in' by his environment.

Ethan Hawke as Tom Ricks. This is representative of compositions in the film which show the character often ‘penned in’ by his environment.

There are many interesting ways into The Woman in the Fifth. It’s another French film in which Kristin Scott Thomas plays a role which requires her character to adopt a background to explain the fact that she speaks English and French and up to five other languages. It is also  an entry into the relatively small world of films by Polish-born directors working out of the UK and travelling to Paris (Polanski ‘s films have a slightly different combination of the same factors). It’s a film in which Ethan Hawke plays an American in Paris who doesn’t end up spending the night with Julie Delpy and finally it follows another adaptation of a Douglas Kennedy novel, The Big Picture (France 2010) with Romain Duris.

Put those four ‘ways in’ together and you’d expect there to be a fair amount of interest generated by the film, but it seemed to do poorly in UK cinemas and I was lucky to catch it on Film 4 – where non-anglophone films now seem to be becoming more marginalised. It isn’t hard to see why the usual audience for Scott-Thomas or for Hawke’s Paris romances wouldn’t be attracted. Hawke’s character is a man seemingly ‘on the run’ and the narrative offers little about what has happened earlier except that he is a lecturer and a writer visiting Paris where he has a 6-year-old daughter and an estranged partner who has taken out a restraining order to prevent him seeing the child. Tom Ricks (Hawke) soon finds himself effectively ‘down and out’, having had his suitcase and money stolen. Chance lands him in a dingy room above a café in a working-class district of the city with a dubious job offer that will allow him to pay the rent. What happens after that demands quite a lot from any audience expecting a mainstream thriller.

Kristin Scott Thomas, "elegantly erotic".

Kristin Scott Thomas, “elegantly erotic”.

Director and adapter Pawel Pawlikowski came to the UK as a teenager and was first a documentary filmmaker before directing two of the best British films of the last twenty years Last Resort (2000) and My Summer of Love (2004). These two films appeared to combine elements of British and East European  filmic realisms, the first bleak and satirical in its depiction of a seaside town used to hold asylum seekers, the second more lyrical, but also slightly disturbing in its representation of adolescent passions in a beautifully rendered West Yorkshire summer. The Woman in the Fifth offers a similar mix of elements reminiscent of both British and Polish cinema, but also French cinema that probes into the world outside the Paris tourist traps and aspects of film noir.

The film’s website offers statements by both Pawlikowski and Hawke. Whether you want to visit it before or after the watching the film is an important decision to make. I read the comments afterwards and that was the best decision for me. I ‘ll try not to spoil the narrative. This is a film where casting and all the key aspects of film language from costume through cinematography, set dressing/choice of locations, costume and music combine to create a very distinctive ‘feel’ to the narrative. Pawlikowski’s previous collaborators, Polish cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski and British music composer Max de Wardener,  contribute a great deal. Visually the film inhabits a Parisian world which I recognise from the films of Claire Denis and Jacques Audiard with interiors which remind me of Polanski’s The Tenant and one or two non-Parisian locations. Pawlikowski and Lenczewski spent a long time looking for unusual locations and then for ways of shooting them to create an expressionist world in which Tom Ricks seems forever to be hemmed in or made vulnerable i some way. The music is sparse and again unsettling. As the director’s comments suggest in the ‘Production Notes’, the music doesn’t conjure up the horror film but instead is quietly seductive but just a little ‘off’ or atonal – and therefore disturbing.

The script requires that Ethan Hawke be dishevelled and weighed down by his heavy black spectacles but that he interacts with three women. Delphine Chuillot as Nathalie, his wife, has a relatively small role, mainly in long shot, but Kristin Scott Thomas as an elegant and eroticised femme fatale figure is as good as you would expect. As the Polish waitress, Jania, Joanna Kulig is equally good and very sexy in a completely different way to Scott Thomas.

Ethan Hawke sans specs for once with Joanna Kulig.

Ethan Hawke sans specs for once with Joanna Kulig.

I don’t really want to say much more about the narrative. I thought at first that it was going to be like Dirty Pretty Things and that Tom would uncover some shady goings-on, but though the milieu is simar, it is a very different kind of film. Pawlikowski suggests that his Paris and the story he has moulded belong to an imaginary world, presented as they are via an American story with American, French and Polish characters. Perhaps this is why I was also reminded of Orson Welles’ version of Kafka’s The Trial with Anthony Perkins as poor K stumbling about a city he doesn’t know.

The more  think about the film, the more interesting I find it. Approach it with an open mind and don’t worry too much if you really don’t understand what is going on – you can think about it afterwards! The ‘Fifth’ in the title by the way refers to the Fifth Arrondissement in Paris, one of the oldest parts of the city on the Left Bank and in the ‘Latin Quarter’ – and a long way from the district where Tom finds himself.

Posted in British Cinema, French Cinema, Polish Cinema | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

BIFF 2013 #8: A Highjacking (Kapringen, Denmark/Kenya 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 15 April 2013

Roland Møller and Johan Philip Asbæk in Kapringen

Roland Møller and Johan Philip Asbæk in Kapringen

BIFF19logoTobias Lindholm must be currently one of the hottest screenwriting talents in Europe after his work on Borgen and The Hunt. Here he adds directing to his talents in a taut and utterly gripping account of the hijacking of a Danish freighter in the Indian Ocean. Lindholm’s script is an exercise in paring down the drama to just two locations – the shipping offices in Copenhagen and the ship itself. In Copenhagen two of the Borgen actors known to UK audiences, Søren Malling and Dar Salim, are in contact with the ship’s cook (Borgen‘s Johan Philip Asbæk), who the Somali pirates have chosen as a negotiating tool as part of a deliberate strategy. The pirates have their own negotiator, Omar, who speaks good English. He remains a mysterious figure throughout – what is his situation, is he being used against his will, or is it all an act? To counteract this the shipping CEO (the Malling character) recruits an expert negotiator played by a real Copenhagen-based security consultant. All the direct negotiation is in English.

The production was based in Mombasa and the ship itself was once hi-jacked so there is a basis of authenticity which is built on in terms of the script. These hi-jacking negotiations can drag out for weeks and months as time is always on the side of the pirates. The brilliance of the script is to emphasise the waiting but also to provide sufficient moments of increased tension and then release without resorting to the kinds of Hollywood conventions in a film like Argo. Lindholm opts to keep the emotional pressure built up in the families back home in the background, placing it instead on the CEO Peter and the decisions he makes. Malling plays the role very effectively. The whole negotiation process raises the obvious questions about the ‘uncaring capitalist ethic’ – how much is the shipping company prepared to pay, how long will they allow the suffering on the boat to continue? On the other hand, would paying too much too soon encourage the pirates to raise the takes? I don’t know the Danish government policy on hi-jackings but Lindholm keeps external agencies completely out of the narrative and that’s probably a good idea. I’ve seen some questions about the representation of the Somali pirates and it’s also worth noting that there are other crew members on the ship who are not given any real screen time. They too will have friends and family back home somewhere in India or South-East Asia. Someone needs to write a script about them as well. It’s probably asking too much of Lindholm to do that on this project, but it is something that Danish writers need to consider as they make more forays into global stories (not that other film industries are necessarily better at doing this, but Danish film and TV is on something of a roll at the moment).

This is a terrific thriller with not a wasted second. Johan Philip Asbæk is particularly good – I noticed that he had a personal coach to help him put on the pounds and a beard to make a convincing ship’s cook. With its Borgen stars to the fore this should do very well in the UK if Arrow can manage to promote it (and the Susanne Bier film) effectively.

Posted in Danish Cinema, Festivals and Conferences, Nordic Cinema | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

BIFF 2013 #4 To Kill a Beaver (Zabić bobra, Poland 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 13 April 2013

Eryk Lubos and Agnieszka Pawełkiewicz in 'To Kill a Beaver'

Eryk Lubos and Agnieszka Pawełkiewicz in ‘To Kill a Beaver’

BIFF19logoGiven the number of national governments who agreed to join the ‘coalition of the willing’ and to send military personnel to Iraq and Afghanistan, there must be a whole sub-genre of ‘returning vet’ films being produced across many film cultures. To Kill a Beaver is a Polish entry. It’s a thriller with sex and violence but also quite a lot of talk and some very interesting ways of representing the trauma of action.

On the face of it, Eryk (Eryk Lubos) is now some kind of freelance killer working on a contract who has returned to his home region, perhaps even his own abandoned farmhouse (this isn’t a film in which you can be very sure of anything). He begins to set up surveillance but he’s interrupted/disturbed by two ‘intruders’. One is a teenage girl who seems to have set up a bolt-hole in the house and the other is a pair of beavers who have damned the local stream. Eryk seems determined to kill the beavers and they are clearly symbolic of something, possibly as a metaphor for invaders or refugees (who have every right to be there). Eryk’s talents are many, including the ability to speak Russian – not always a sensible thing to do in Poland I’m told. How did he acquire this facility? Where has he been a soldier and what has he done? I won’t say any more in the hope that you can get to see the film – though as the still indicates, man and girl do get together.

This film was a hit at Karlovy Vary, the most important festival for showcasing Central European films, last year. Eryk Lubos won the Best Actor prize. But just as films about the impact of war on soldiers struggle to win audiences in the US, so it seems do they similarly fail in Poland. No one wants to know about post traumatic stress or what Poland’s ‘special forces’ (GROM) get up to as this report from Karlovy Vary by the Polish Film Institute suggests. There is a lot going on in the film which ought to mean much more in Poland than it does to international festival audiences. Director Jan Jakub Kolski argues that he makes auteur films – i.e. for himself first. I think that if picked up for wider distribution this film could do well in many countries and perhaps then it would get the recognition it deserves at home. It’s the most striking film I’ve seen at Bradford so far.

Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Polish Cinema | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

LFF 2012 #3: El taaib (The Repentant/Le repenti, Algeria-France 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 14 October 2012

Rachid meets his father in his home village after deciding to ‘repent’

By the time of my third film of the day, I was very tired and this was a demanding film in the circumstances. This interesting review from Cine-Vue suggests that the film was well-chosen as part of the ‘Debate’ strand of the festival (a slide on-screen announces this after you’ve sat through the rather tedious festival filmed introduction sequence of a young woman watching films and stuffing herself with popcorn). I’m not sure that simply giving us ‘Debate’ – almost as a command – works for me, but having an Algerian filmmaker or critic present to introduce the film would have been good. LFF is actually quite good at this kind of thing.

Merzak Allouache is a veteran Algerian director (born in 1944) and I remember with pleasure his 1996 film Salut Cousin! about a North African visitor’s sometimes comic adventures in Paris while staying with his cousin. This new film is very different. A statement during the credits tells us that a ‘Repentant’ is the official term used by the Algerian authorities for ex-soldiers from the Islamist guerrilla groups who fought in the Algerian Civil War and who were prepared to come down from the mountains and forests, hand in their weapons and report to the police before resuming ‘normal’ life. One such is Rachid, whose appearance at the beginning of the film in his parent’s village creates a local stir with some villagers attacking him as the only available possible murderer of their family members. I didn’t pick up the precise time period for the action in the film but historically the story would fit in the period around 1999-2000 following the passing of legislation about ‘civil concord’.

Rachid reports to the police in the neighbouring town. He is offered a job in a café-bar arranged via the police and expected to start naming names. But when he discovers the identity of the local pharmacist, he feels compelled to act without telling the police. I won’t spoil the narrative. Suffice to say, we don’t know at first why the pharmacist is so important or where the story is going to go. Narrative information is given to us sparingly and there is a palpable sense of unease. The film is quite short (87 mins) and it ends rather abruptly. I think I agree with the Cine-Vue reviewer that some of the characters such as the (very reluctant) café owner and the local police chief who set up Rachid in his new identity need more time on screen.

The Algerian Civil War was brutal in many ways and it clearly isn’t ‘over’ yet. I think it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t succumb to over-optimistic outcomes. When I reflected on the narrative afterwards I thought this was a restrained and powerful little story. Having said that, I’m not sure what there is to debate. It’s a neglected war in terms of histories and contemporary media coverage, especially in the UK and it shouldn’t be – especially given recent events in the rest of the Maghreb and elsewhere in the Arab world. The film doesn’t take sides or explain why the characters behave as they do, it just shows us some of the terrible consequences of civil war. Allouache himself says that he wanted to “question the amnesia” about the war in Algeria itself. He lives in France and made the film on location in just 20 days with little co-operation (but no banning restriction) from the Algerian cultural authorities. (See his statements in this Euromed Audio-Visual report – including some interesting comments about film culture in Algeria.)

The film was another to be screened in Cannes in Directors Fortnight and it was given a prize by Europa Cinema distributors. I hope it does get a wide release but I think, unfortunately, that it will be a hard sell in the international market. All the more reason then to be grateful to the LFF for bringing it over.

Posted in Arab Cinema, Festivals and Conferences, Politics on film | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Shadow Dancer (UK-Ireland 2012)

Posted by Rona on 30 August 2012

Riseborough and Owen negotiate Friend or Foe in Shadow Dancer

A European co-production, Shadow Dancer appears to hark back to the kind of British political thriller of the 1970s or 1980s, both on television and in the cinema, which can maintain and transfer to its audience an air of paranoia and fear for the entire length of its running time.  That its story is set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles adds a further strong political resonance, particularly for British and Irish audiences, in its representation of its heroine Colette (Andrea Riseborough) and her relationship with the British government contact, Mac (Clive Owen).  This relationship – where he recruits her to spy for the Brits to avoid a devastating prison sentence which will separate her from her young son – is established very early in the film and this piece has no other spoilers (but some detail) about a thriller that does deliver on the narrative twists.

Adapted from his own novel by Tom Bradby (a British journalist who covered the conflict in Northern Ireland and wrote this first novel out of his experiences) It is set at the point at which the peace process of the early 1990s has begun and there is the beginnings of division in the Republican leadership which is likely to set the terrorist element adrift but the political machinations sit very firmly in the background.  This is a drama focussed on the personal dilemmas and struggles of Colette caught between two strong and uncompromising bullies – the IRA and the British Government.  Her fear centres not just on herself but on the safety of her son and it is the fear not just of a terrorist (the opening sequence shows her to be part of that ‘struggle’) but of ordinary people living out their lives within a situation where opposing political forces use their streets as a battleground.  This is not an ideological thriller, then, (although it does draw – for me – on the likes of Defence of the Realm or the television series Edge of Darkness for aspects of a conspiracy drama).  Instead, it’s a story where the most dramatic twists occur through the actions of its characters – actions which are rarely explained through the dialogue but make complete sense to you in the audience.

This is perhaps partly if you are British or Irish and are old enough to remember the context and the cross-currents of the time – but even if you don’t, it really works because this a film that is so impressive in its use of visual storytelling.  The dialogue is exceptionally spare – there is hardly any for much of the opening 15-20 (ish) minutes – introducing the protagonist and her situation.  It tends to the ‘wordless’ throughout – suggesting relationships and ideas through its narrative structure and through the physical performance of its actors.  There is a thoughtful visual repeat which (wordlessly) reinforces the parallels of the Brits and the IRA’s treatment of Colette;  there are odd gestures which encapsulate the attitude of a particular character (I thought Gillian Anderson as Mac’s boss made subtle use of very limited screen time here in this.  Clive Owen plays effectively against his established suave persona without overstating it physically). Of the family, Riseborough is consummate (something you almost begin to expect from her having seen her previous work on television and film – such as The Devil’s Whore on Channel 4 (which is still available through their on-demand service in the UK) and The Long Walk to Finchley as Margaret Thatcher as well as lead film turns in Brighton Rock and part of the ensemble in Made in Dagenham. The camera in this film is not afraid of close-up – and Riseborough knows how to use it because she can entirely inhabit the territory of that character. Aiden Gillen fleshes out a typical activist, hothead stereotype with limited time and Domhnall Gleeson (a rising star – who has just shot a Richard Curtis film and part of the next big Brit-flick in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina) entirely conveys a youthful, gauche, loving brother who is also an entirely committed terrorist.

Whilst these performances are vital, the film has an understated aesthetic which might hide its incredibly sophisticated – expressionistic use – of production design. The typical browns and sepias of smoke-filled rooms set the historical era of the early 1990s, the drab colours characterise homes that (given the poverty induced by constant, drip-drip conflict) have hardly moved on since the 1970s. (Here, the film made a strong social point without ever drawing it to attention in the script  through the wood-pannelled decor).  Characters are dressed to fit emotional standing and mood.  Framings in close-up have an unsettling (fearful) angle to emphasise effectively the tension of the narrative – nothing has been left to chance to construct a visual look that feels entirely unforced and natural. Visual edits during a funeral scene lay out the distinctions in attitudes in this community – as well as its seething anger at injustice – which informs our understanding of characters later.  Fundamentalism – our popular understanding of it now – haunts aspects of this film. To begin the film on a London tube is resonant of more recent events (certainly for a British audience) and sparks us into questioning  what drives people to commit atrocities – acts which viewed from outside can seem simply cold and contrived and without a human base. Anger is at the heart of this film – what it drives people to do, how it shapes them – with more sympathy and understanding of that emotion than that statement might imply.

Its director, James Marsh, was the Oscar-winning director of Man on Wire the documentary which told the story of Philippe Petit who walked across a tightrope suspended between the World Trade Centre twin towers in 1974. Nothing really joins these two British-produced films by the same director (who has directed both narrative and documentary work before), who also made another historically retrospective documentary in Project Nim, except this extraordinary ability to tell a story that could be about events and really ends up being about the people involved in them. Looking at it simply as a film (and not a politically or culturally charged film) its ability to blend aspects of performance, production design and cinematography reminds me of  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy from last year.  That film evoked visually the seedy corridors of power to evoke emotionally the pervading distrust of the Cold War spy era within the British establishment itself. This film has a greater degree of understatement in its visual construction which I hope will not mean it is overlooked during awards – simply because this kind of British film-making deserves recognition.

Posted in British Cinema, Irish Cinema | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

 
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