Category: British Cinema

Ex Machina (UK 2015)

Caleb (Dhomnall Gleason) arrives at the remote house of Nathan (Oscar Isaac)

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, left) arrives at the remote house of Nathan (Oscar Isaac)

Alex Garland is a British writer with a keen interest in SF which he has turned into interesting scripts for a number of films. Now he has become a writer-director and we can consider whether the earlier films owe more to directors like Danny Boyle (e.g. in 28 Days Later) or the original story (Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishigiro) rather than Garland’s own contributions. My initial thought about Ex Machina is that the direction fits the script but that the most immediately impressive features  are the performances, the location, set design and cinematography and the sound design and music score (all of which are, of course, part of the collective work which the director co-ordinates). On reflection, however, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the way in which Garland creates a discourse about Artificial Intelligence, partly through dialogue and the interaction of characters and partly through narrative development. In doing so he draws on the whole history of SF in literature and film. I think there is relatively little ‘new’ in the presentation of AI here, apart from the idea that the ‘scientist as God’ character, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), has drawn on his experience as the creator of an internet search engine as the means of acquiring the data which has informed his programming of androids. But genre films don’t have to be original to work well and in several ways this is an exemplar SF narrative. I can see, however, that it might be seen as more like a filmic version of a classic SF short story or an episode of The Outer Limits. It is relatively modest in its reach, partly perhaps because with only $13 million and a need for extensive effects there are serious restraints on production. Still, better a modest success than a $100 million Hollywood mess.

The narrative set-up is straightforward. Caleb, a young coder working for the ‘Blue Book’ (?) internet search company, is flown to the remote house/research laboratory owned by Nathan, the firm’s founder. Here he learns that he has seven days to apply the Turing Test to the product of Nathan’s research, an android robot named Ava. This is the first conundrum which seems to have tripped up some reviewers. In the original test the idea was that the tester would not be able to see the computer but would be able to discern from its behaviour in answering questions (or playing chess) that it was human or a machine. The AI would ‘pass’ the test if it was impossible to tell the difference. But Nathan presents Caleb with the android itself. His task is to engage with the android and try to devise his own test to see if he recognises human rather than ‘artificial’ behaviour. This in itself raises an interesting set of philosophical questions – the test becomes about Caleb’s behaviour as much as it is about Ava’s.

Alicia Vikander as Ava

Alicia Vikander as Ava

Ava is clearly ‘artificial’ – we can see the elements of the machine. The next question is whether ‘she’ is ‘female’, or perhaps, is it possible for Caleb to conduct the test when the android has a woman’s shape and a face as beautiful as that of Alicia Vikander? In the blog by MaryAnn Johanson there is a sustained critique of the film, accusing it of being a male director’s version of a feminist film when in reality it is the opposite. There are many comments on Johanson’s blog in both support and opposition and it is an interesting debate. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll not discuss all the points but certainly we can imagine that the test Caleb devises is partly, consciously or unconsciously, influenced by Ava’s seductive charm. On the other hand, it is quite a leap to suggest that Ava is, or that she represents, a ‘woman’. The android has no sex even if ‘her’ actions are ‘gendered’ in social terms by Caleb and Nathan – as well as by us the audience. I think several viewings are going to be needed before I would be confident about embarking on a debate about the film’s representations of gender. Ava is an interesting name for the android. In one sense Ava ‘sounds like’ ‘Eva’, the first woman. It’s also the first name of the film star who in her time was argued to be the most beautiful, Ava Gardner and it is close to ‘Ada’ which might be a reference to Ada Lovelace, daughter of Byron and claimed by some as the first computer programmer.

A few days ago I was complaining about the script for Albatross and focusing on poor script development as a weakness in British cinema. I don’t think you could accuse Garland of producing a sloppy script. I read somewhere that he was attempting to achieve something like the closed drama of Sleuth, the 1970 play by Anthony Shaffer, first adapted as a film in 1972 with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. It’s possible to see elements of a theatre text in the lines of dialogue between Caleb and Nathan, enhanced by the tension between the two as Nathan sets out to ‘play’ the younger man like a fish lured to the fly. My only problem with this is that I’m not yet convinced by Nathan’s character – or rather his behaviour. I don’t think that this is the fault of Oscar Isaac as Nathan, but Nathan seems rather boorish and careless for a man who has designed an android and who lives in such a stylish house.

I think I’m convincing myself that this would be a good study text for students and I’m looking forward to mapping the references and influences. It seems fairly clear that the gender issues are central in some way and also all those Phil K. Dick obsessions with the interface between human and artificial intelligence. Ex Machina could be a Dickian short story. But the Hollywood Reporter gets it wrong in its review. At the beginning of Blade Runner, the ‘replicants’ (the film’s term for androids) are not being given a Turing Test – the society already knows that replicants can pass for human. Instead they are being given an ‘empathy test’ as the only way to identify them. Dick referred to androids and to simulacra. Ava is presented as an android but the technology used could create ‘sims’, indistinguishable visually from humans. I’m not going to spoil the narrative but the Dick story that came to mind when I watched Ex Machina was ‘Second Variety’ (1953) – well worth reading and thinking about in relation to Garland’s story. The other major work that occurred to me was Tarkovsky’s Solaris but I’m not sure what triggered this memory (possibly it was the memory of Natalya Bondarchuk as the woman on the space station).

Ex Machina is an interesting and engaging SF film and following Under the Skin, presents a strong case for the health of British SF cinema. (IMDB bafflingly calls this an American film but as far as I can see it is entirely British – unless Universal invested in the film. Certainly it was shot in UK studios (and on location in Norway).

This is quite a good trailer (and doesn’t give away too much):

Albatross (UK 2011)

Jessica Brown Findlay (Emelia) and Felicity Jones (Beth) in a promotional still for ALBATROSS.

Jessica Brown Findlay (Emelia) and Felicity Jones (Beth) in a promotional still for ALBATROSS.

As a late night film on TV this was an undemanding but generally enjoyable watch. I watched it because of Felicity Jones and she and Jessica Brown Findlay as the two leads both give spirited performances. On reflection, the film offers a case study in the problems facing British filmmakers. There are quite a few films like this, offering vehicles for some talented performers and technicians but also being deeply flawed because of poor scripts. I try not to moan about scripts – I’m sure they are difficult to write and I couldn’t write one. However, the relatively inexperienced Tamzin Rafn doesn’t seem to have had much support here. The producers must take some of the responsibility.

Ms Rafn has stated that she was inspired by the example of Diablo Cody who developed the script for Juno (Canada/US 2007) after beginning to write autobiographically about her life as a stripper. Rafn took on board the idea of writing about what she knew and produced a script featuring a ‘naughty girl’ in a seaside town. From this interview it is clear that the script was gradually changed in pre-production and what began as a ‘cuckoo in the nest’ domestic comedy became more about the relationship between two young women. The film begins with Emelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) as a rather mysterious but vivacious 17 year-old taken on as a cleaner in a small private hotel owned by Jonathan, the German writer of a single bestselling novel (Sebastian Koch), his shrewish wife Joa played by Julia Ormond, bookish daughter Beth (Felicity Jones) and her much younger sister Posy. Emelia is witty and tantalising and has soon entranced the writer and Beth, pushed Joa almost to the edge and amused Posy. Emelia is later revealed to be living with her grandparents and the ‘albatross’ of the title is that she genuinely believes she is related to the writer Arthur Conan Doyle. She has left school, started taking casual jobs and wants to become a writer.

Bert Hardy’s famous 1951 photo for Picture Post of two girls on Blackpool promenade.


The scenario sounds familiar with the insertion of a ‘disrupting influence’ into a family which has become mired in frustration in terms of its internal relationships. The reviews and critical reaction tend to refer to this as a ‘coming of age’ story with both Emelia and Beth as 17/18 year-olds. The marketing of the film deliberately makes reference to David Leland’s Wish You Were Here (UK 1987). Tamzin Rafn tells us that Leland himself sent an encouraging message after the film’s Edinburgh screening. Leland made several very good films and TV plays about young people in the UK and Rafn finds parallels between her own experience and that of Emily Lloyd as Leland’s young heroine in a 1950s South Coast town. Both films make use of Bert Hardy’s iconic image of freedom and sexual liberation for holidaymakers in Blackpool – yet the young women in both films are residents not ‘grockles’.

And here is the second problem for the film. It was made by CinemaNX the company that managed the investment-funding of the Isle of Man Film Commission and its first and best-known credit was Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (US/UK 2009) which used several key locations on the island. I think it has now been taken over by Pinewood Studios. The Isle of Man is a fabulous location with a range of landscapes and many buildings that can stand in for a variety of locations – as they did for a New York theatre in the 1930s in the Linklater film. In Albatross the key location is the pretty harbour of Peel. For those of you outside the UK, the Isle of Man sits in the Irish Sea almost equidistant from England, Scotland and Ireland. Its glorious scenery reflects its geographical location, though it could also represent West Wales or the Cornish/Devon coast. But it doesn’t look like the coast further east where I take Albatross to be set. Landscape does matter. More important for the narrative perhaps, Emilia and Beth feel isolated in this ‘dump’ of a South Coast town. This is fine, but unlike Emily Lloyd in the 195os, 17 year-olds today could easily catch a train or hitch a lift to London at any time. Think how much more ‘isolated’ they would be located on the Isle of Man or the coast of Scotland or Northern Ireland when it comes to one of the key sequences – Beth’s visit to Oxford for a university interview. A decent script would use the sense of place. The idea of the writer who buys a hotel in a quiet seaside town could work quite well – I’ve seen some films set on Scottish islands that do this.

The film eventually becomes about the two very different young women and many reviews compared the film to Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love (UK 2004) with Emily Blunt and Natalie Press. The comparison doesn’t favour Albatross. My first thoughts turned to Sandra Golbacher’s underrated Me Without You (UK 2001) with Anna Friel and Michelle Williams. Again, the comparison doesn’t do the script of Albatross very many favours. It’s a shame because the performers are generally very good, including the wonderful Peter Vaughan as Emilia’s granddad. The direction is fine by Niall MacCormick and the ‘Scope cinematography by Swedish(?) cinematographer Jan Jonaeus shows off the locations very well. The music score is lively  – but there is only so much you can do with characters who don’t have much to say that is interesting.

My initial focus was Felicity Jones. Here she plays a character much younger than her real age and it only showed a couple of times. This film completed a trio of youth pictures following Cemetery Junction (UK 2010) and SoulBoy (UK 2010), both ‘period’ stories. Also in 2011 she was the lead in Chalet Girl, an enjoyable romantic social comedy which perhaps I’ll write about later. Felicity Jones has already clocked up an impressive list of film and TV credits and is now beginning to appear in more international films following her The Amazing Spider-Man 2 appearance in 2014. This year she is opposite Jonah Hill and James Franco in the re-titled US film Jill. She has also completed the next Eran Creevy film Autobahn made in Germany with US money. I’m looking forward to that. Jones has been all over the US chat shows in the last few years and she is clearly going places. She’s clearly bright and hard-working and distinctive. I hope she can maintain that persona.

Meanwhile Jessica Brown Findlay, who is actually the lead in Albatross, hasn’t quite capitalised on her high profile in Downton Abbey as yet but she is clearly talented too. But then so was Julia Ormond whose reign as a lead in Hollywood films was altogether too brief in the mid-1990s. Now she’s a character actor (in a thankless role here, I think).

See all three of the British actors (I couldn’t find any reason why Sebastian Koch was cast as the author, unless it was an attempt to sell the film in Europe) in this trailer:

Starred Up (UK 2013)

Living on an edge

Living on an edge

Jack O’Connell was brilliant in ’71 and here he plays another working class lad brought up in an institution. There may be dangers of typecasting except the characters are so clearly delineated that there’s no possiblity of eliding the two. It’s another fantastic performance by this rising star. He plays Eric Love, a 19-year-old we see arriving in prison for a ‘very long time'; we don’t know what his offence is but it will be violent. Like previous posting, WhiplashStarred Up seeks to make deeply unsympathetic characters understandable. Jonathan Asser’s script is immensely successful in this no doubt aided by his work as a prison therapist.

O’Connell’s is one of many superb performances; Rupert Friend as ‘O’, a therapist, manages to convey his own mental trauma with little explanation as to why he, without pay, wants to help these violent thugs. Thugs they are but they are also people who have become violent because of how they were treated, as children, and their immersion in macho culture. Melodramatically Eric’s father, Neville (Ben Mendelssohn – fabulous), is in the same prison and in one scene they sit down to ‘talk': Eric has only one question. O tries to get the men in his group to have conversations with fellow inmates and hence empathise with each other and themselves. I see Eric’s behaviour, in the way he relates to authority, many times during the week in my work as a teacher. Young boys (mostly) who don’t want to learn academically and/or have ‘issues’ at home. The same surly refusal to engage, that O’Connell shows as Eric, marks them out, not as future criminals necessarily, but youngsters who are being failed by our education system. It is our duty to engage them. I’m not blaming teachers but the system that insists on ‘one size fits all’. The ones who are failed by the dogma destroying education are predominantly working class so the idiots running the Ministry of Exam Passing don’t care.

The violence is extremely violent and the climax had me twitching in my seat, a tribute to David Mackenzie’s direction. A quite breath-taking movie.

The Theory of Everything (UK 2014)


This newly released film looks set to do well in the Award Season, especially at the UK BAFTAS, having already won a Golden Globe for its star. It does posses a lot of the qualities that have pleased the BAFTA membership, including the fine acting that so frequently graces British films. However, despite a dramatic and ultimately feel-good real-life story as a basis, it rather fails to engage. I think the problems lies in the scripting and direction, as the production values are pretty good.

The film seems to be inhibited by that sense of ‘good taste’ that is so common in British films. To give one example [which as it is a recorded event is hardly a plot spoiler], late in the film Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Jane (Felicity Jones) attend an investiture at Buckingham Palace. We see the fore and after but not the actual event, which feels like an anti-climax. The same decorum also inhibits the sexual relations which are an important part of the story.

The film also suffers from a common problem with biopics – how to convey complex ideas without becoming complicated. One way used in this production occurs at the film’s end. The plot is reversed in a brief and rapid montage: a sort of mini-Benjamin Button. One can guess at the intended relationship to Stephen Hawkins’s famous work on Time: but it feels facile. The film is taken from the memoir by Jane: whilst the film shows her engaging with Stephen’s theorising the focus is personal rather than scientific.

But what the film really lacks is intensity. It crosses over in some ways with two earlier films – My Left Foot (UK 1989) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (US/France 2007). But those films not only enjoy fine lead performances, they also generate a sense of emotion that seems to engage most audiences. I rather think this film fails on that account.