LFF 2012: Midnight’s Children **

The adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s novel and Booker Prize winner Midnight’s Children by the author himself was obviously a labour of love, what with the author providing the eloquent narration, as well as an exciting prospect for fans. But Midnight’s Children proves a valuable point that sometimes the originator is not necessarily the best person to adapt his or her story for the big screen; that’s when film-making talent is required to lift the written word, visually, off the page.

This is where there is a sense that although Indian film-maker Deepa Mehta (Elements trilogy) as director on this takes the bones of the novel and makes the film visually sumptuous, there is a lot of drag and over indulgence, which results in a loss of charm in places. The fact that by the time the intriguing characters grow into adulthood, their paths, hopes and dreams become scattered and less interesting as their futures become more moulded by caste is evidence of this.

Midnight’s Children has been produced in a touching and magical way of visually addressing the birth and border friction of a great nation – India at midnight on 15th August 1947, with a lot of spirit and superstition. Indeed, that Saleem Sinai (Satya Bhabha as the adult Saleem), son of a poor mother and rich Englishman, with a large, problem nose, who is swapped at birth in a political and ill-thought out manoeuvre by the hospital nurse with Shiva (Siddharth), son of a wealthy Indian couple, can conjure up the other children born at the stroke of midnight too, using magical powers, is a sensitive way of political and social portrayal.

That said capturing the imagination in this way starts to wear thin as the story itself loses steam and pace. The characters overcrowd the important, dramatic moments, reminding us just how long and episodic (at two and a half hours) the film actually is – almost like watching a back-to-back TV series. In fact, without some historical context of Saleem’s origins, there would be very little character development of interest to sink your teeth into – something that does not translate well to screen from the book. Thankfully, Bhabha has enough charisma to lead the whole affair, or the Rushdie- Mehta film would blend into insignificance and tedium, however well meaning and ironic it is trying to be.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ***

From one book to three separate features, Peter Jackson’s transformation of the classic Tolkien children’s novel has been a labour of love indeed for the LOTR director. The argument that will rage after viewing it on the big screen is just how necessary was it to create three films – regardless of how great the footage shot in New Zealand was? For some, this will only draw out the thrill of seeing this cinematic saga to eventual completion and a chance to revisit Middle Earth twice again; for others, it will just be ‘drawn out’ and a little tedious. Actually, watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey feels like hanging onto a pendulum wearing 3D glasses, swinging between both view points.

When it eventually gets going after an overly long introduction instigated by wise but wacky wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to our little, big-footed hero, The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and a bunch of fighting dwarves in the Shire, on the one hand, The Hobbit offers some thrilling animated rides in a new 48 frames per second format that does work effectively in 3D. On the other, this new format in quieter moments – such as said elongated first encounter at the Baggins residence – does have a sickly, waxy effect, visually, almost removing the fantasy element and making it much like a ‘made for TV’ production.

Fans will either love or hate the artistic licence with which Jackson has approached his story: introducing Galadriel (reprised by Cate Blanchett once more) to The Hobbit plot seems more like a whim of Jackson’s, rather than adding any real value added to the tale, and creating an excuse to add a bit of serene beauty to the fore – unless the following Jackson tales have bigger storytelling plans to follow? These scenes merely emphasise the padding that has been applied to inflate the magic longer. However, true to the episodic nature of book and its introduction of a new creature in each chapter, the Jackson story is as exciting to witness unfold as to what’s around the corner as in the literature – if only to add to Bilbo growing in stature and strength of character.

One such scene that does credit to the book is the infamous Riddles Game sequence between Bilbo and the wretched, translucent-skinned creature Gollum. This oozes with sinister intent and razor-sharp wit, with the colouring of the surrounding watery caves is a wonder to behold. Andy Serkis – who also helped direct these films – is a joy to watch voicing Gollum and bringing him to life once more, while filling out the start of the backstory about him and ‘his precious’ Ring.

The climatic end encounter with the gruesome Orcs and the wild wolves, the wargs, where Bilbo becomes a fully fledged hero in defence of injured Thorin (Richard Armitage) is Jackson at his visionary best, in design, 3D camera-angles and imagination. Sadly, the aftermath of their soaring salvation by the eagles feels like a letdown in comparison. Still, it sows the seeds for further adventure, regardless of altering the novel’s ending to this means.

The Hobbit is just shy of three hours – for those who can’t get enough of the fantasy world and its creatures, it will be a sumptuous ride in a newly experimented format. For others less enthralled by Tolkien, it could prove an obstacle in venturing out to watch the further two films – to the detriment of the impact of the original tale and its fascinating world of characters and vistas.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2012: I, Anna***

Writer-director Barnaby Southcombe offers up a tense, dreamlike noir that celebrates his charismatic mother, actress Charlotte Rampling, with I, Anna. This downbeat thriller that features one of London’s most imposing pieces of architecture, The Barbican, uses the sinister facades as well as retro finishes – old fashioned phones – to set a stylish murder scene. It’s much like a British ‘Sea of Love’ in plot, but with a less convincing storyline.

Rampling plays a femme fatale with amnesia, an attractive, middle-aged woman called Anna Welles who is single and favours visiting speed dating evenings over staying in. After one such dating encounter with George Stone (Ralph Brown) she finds herself in trouble, while falling for the senior detective in charge of the murder case, Bernie (Gabriel Byrne).

With or without her son’s help in this, Rampling gives her usual beguiling performance, giving her character intrigue and pose with every paused thought in close up. She seems suitably cast opposite Byrne as the melancholy, down-on-his-luck cop, and the pair play off each other’s airs of mystery as best as they can.

The problem is, although this film is beautifully shot, giving it a sinister, gritty and detached atmosphere as these tragic characters interact in a cold urban environment, desperately looking for acceptance, the story doesn’t offer any real thrill or glimmer of excitement – even with Eddie Marsan as cynical D.I. Kevin Franks barking orders to pick up the intensity and pace.

The film is adapted from Elsa Lewin’s novel so there is the suggestion that a lot of the psychological aspects of the written word are lost in translation in the screenplay, leaving it all feeling a little wanting and lacking a vital thread throughout that leads to the end reveal. Still, as a first-time feature, Southcombe has cut his teeth with the noir genre, and with someone writing his next project, things could get interesting.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2012: Great Expectations ***

Four Weddings and a Funeral director Mike Newell’s take on the Charles Dickens’ classic Great Expectations is a safe, play-by-numbers affair that neither excites nor bores but simply picks off key moments and retells the tale with some of the cream of British acting crop, plus some extravagant set design that you would expect from a big-screen budget.

The problem is this cinematic adaptation comes too soon after the BBC’s Christmas TV special so there is understandably an instant feeling of déjà vu when the opening scenes of the Kentish marshes roll, rather than something fresh to whet the appetite.

Pip (Toby Irvine and Jeremy Irvine) is an orphan living with his greedy, overbearing sister (Sally Hawkins) and her downtrodden blacksmith husband Joe (Jason Flemyng) who takes to Pip like his own son. One day Pip is invited to visit the mysterious mansion of the equally mysterious and wealthy recluse Miss Havisham (Helena Bonham Carter) who seems to want a ‘play thing’ for her beautiful adopted daughter Estella (Helena Barlow and Holliday Grainger), but later reveals more sinister reasons for her sudden interest in him. Having had a taste of the high life, young Pip soon gets his chance to reinvent himself as a gentleman in London, courtesy of a mysterious benefactor.

With such a grand, theatrical literary work to hand, it seems this 2012 cinematic version missed a trick in teasing out the flamboyant melodrama that the Dickens’ work is well known for. Perhaps this is part of the problem: the sheer wealth of material in the novel requires far more daring than One Day writer David Nicholls has demonstrated to stay faithful to the story while spicing things up a little. This version lacks the creepiness and threatening nature of Victorian Britain, if nothing else.

Even the assured, impeccable acting from Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes as the dishevelled and (supposedly) frightening Magwitch does not instil a menacing fear or render you in awe of each iconic character’s next thought and move: both seem a trifle anaesthesised in their theatrics. Admittedly, Bonham Carter does well not to mimic her deranged Harry Potter character Bellatrix Lestrange, but a little more twisted malice would have been welcome, rather than her glazed-eyed, bug-eyed state in this. This was a part made for the actress, allowing her to draw on all her past character attributes.

Fiennes portrays a more quirky and emotional misfit than expected of the escaped convict, with a dreamlike back-story of bemusing blurred visions, but has none of the rough and ready persona of Ray Winstone’s TV version. Still, Fiennes’ more amenable take allows Newell to explore the intriguing paternal angle between fatherless Pip and Magwitch and the effects on Pip’s fragile psyche, which gives this film in its latter scenes a harrowing, melancholy feel.

Jeremy Irvine and Holliday Grainger are far more commendable and suited to the roles of Pip and Estella than the BBC’s poster boy Douglas Booth and bland Vanessa Kirby. There is certainly more fight to Irvine’s portrayal and tragic lost soul, and Grainger injects greater spite into the womanly Estella than Kirby ever did. In fact, there is a more believable element of ‘damaged personalities’ at play to their individual performances that makes their search for love and happiness all the more heartbreaking to witness. This has got to be one of the earliest ‘child grooming’ stories to date, in a sense.

Newell’s Great Expectations is not the version to top all cinematic versions, not coming close to the atmospheric high drama of David Lean’s 1946 outing. However, Dickens fans will be appeased by the splendid cast at their disposal, minus weird and mind-bending dream sequences aside – an excuse to gloss over relaying key emotions and happenings in the novel, and will find the remainder an admirable watch of highbrow production values.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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