BFI LFF 2016: Prevenge ***

Alice Lowe was the writing/acting force behind the incredibly dark and murderous comedy Sightseers, directed by Ben Wheatley that sent excitable ripples through BFI LFF in 2012. The format here for new slasher-comedy Prevenge is not much different in terms of style. It’s another great showpiece for Lowe’s acting talents in a directorial debut, while boldly using the serious subject of antenatal depression as its emotive vehicle.

It also helps that Lowe was pregnant at the time of making Prevenge, rendering it a highly intriguing exploration for those with any such experience of this illness. By using the jet-blackest of comedy, Lowe draws much-needed attention to the condition, forcing us to confront its reality – very astute filmmaking indeed.

Lowe plays pregnant Ruth, virtually full-term but grieving a life-changing event that gradually comes to light. Along the way, she encounters an array of prejudice from a variety of people, dealing with it in her own murderous way, supposedly spurred on her unborn child’s voice from within.

Sometimes the touchiness subjects are best dealt with comedy. Lowe guides us throughout this tricky terrain with her usual deadpan, vacant stance, turning everyday remarks ‘those with child’ encounter into the ridiculous and hence, justifying Ruth’s reactions. The first couple of vile victims get their ‘just desserts’, with the inappropriateness of the opening scene dialogue only (brilliantly) registering after a minute, much like in a real-life abuse situation where disbelief turns to horror then to anger at being made the unwilling recipient.

Lowe never allows us to pigeon-hole Ruth quite so easily though, keeping her varied and unpredictable – the only given is she’s finding pregnancy tough and will have her baby girl in the end. Ruth is both entertaining as she is shocking in behaviour. Lowe nails the internal thoughts any expectant mother has had when faced with ‘sympathetic’ healthcare professionals and those believing motherhood is a woman’s natural urge. This is where Ruth’s character lays the vital foundations for us to empathise with her. She is consumed by grief and feeling alienated, walking alone towards the inevitable in a comatose state. These are powerful character traits that could have been further explored though.

The production values do place Prevenge in the low-budget, B-movie bargain bucket, and while favouring sobering muted tones and unfocused camera moments to reflect Ruth’s state of mind, also dwell too much on some of the kills as to lessen the of the significance of the illness Ruth is displaying. Lowe only manages to claw this back by getting some superb acting moments out of her supporting cast – such as Jo Hartley as Ruth’s chirpy midwife, even though most characters are painted as caricatures on the whole. Yet the unpolished production values also serve well to mirror an imperfect mental state, so it’s questionable whether any other way (and bigger budget) would have worked better.

Prevenge is a fascinating take on the female killer, as society still battles with – and disbelieves that – women do kill. Antenatal depression might give the intent and some might question using this subject in a nonchalant way, but only by Lowe’s bold filmmaking does it become accessible and open to debate. Lowe delivers an entertaining and thought-provoking directorial debut in her own unique style that could have gone deeper, but that can only be praised and built on in her next project.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2015: Suffragette ****

Suffragette

As a female and a mother, the most sobering part of this film is at the very end. A list of nations rolls with the dates women got the vote. Some dates will profoundly shock. Others will not. Some women are still waiting. It’s the grand finale needed to drive the message home in a film that does not – and cannot – give you a happy ending. Too much was at stake and an awful lot lost.

Set in 1912-1913 at the height of the Suffragette movement, Suffragette follows the story of working-class Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), living with her husband (Ben Whishaw) and young son in London’s Bethnal Green, East End. Maud has worked long hours in a local laundry since she was a little girl, run by leering boss Mr Taylor (Geoff Bell) who uses every opportunity to abuse certain ‘favourites’ of his female staff.

One co-worker, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) has had enough and been secretly attending Suffragette meetings, held by local chemist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). When a battered Violet is unable to speak before ministers to put forward her case for women’s suffrage, Maud is persuaded to step in. Something changes at that moment as Maud realises the importance of what these women stand for. However, joining the campaign will mean ostracism and heartache for her, and her way of life drastically altered forever.

Director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan’s drama is designed to be highly emotive and empowering. It’s hard not to get behind Maud on such an important issue – and it’s not necessarily about getting the vote, but liberating fifty per cent of the UK’s population at the time.

Even though none of the fight is pictured in a particularly favourable light, it’s not meant to be – except, perhaps, the romanticised and very brief outing of Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst on a balcony then dashing into a waiting carriage while telling women everywhere to stand true and never give up. Gavron uses uncompromising shots to show the true brutality of the suffragettes verses authority. It may well be a period drama but it’s gritty like newsreel and quite unforgiving. It also highlights the stark reality of what happened if you got caught, with unpleasant reconstructions of prison suffering and torture.

In this respect, Mulligan’s weary, urchin-looking demeanour is perfectly cast and most harrowing when she losses that which is most dear to her. This point in the film – after following the escalation of previous sacrifices – will totally appal any parent at the tragic consequences reached when a mother and a wife is trying to bring about a better life, but not necessarily with the support of those closest to her.

The female cast is stellar and a draw in itself, but there is no posturing for screen time. In fact, the likes of Bonham Carter, for example, is very understated here. Romola Garai as middle-class Alice Haughton, a politician’s wife is equally downcast. Duff encapsulates all the physical scars of a suffragette of the time, including the emotional toll. Surrounding their characters is a greater menace of public shame and humiliation that puts a further gloom over the picture. However, it’s still Mulligan’s triumph as Maud as she grows from a wretched shell to a promising leader and independent.

Suffragette is a film on a mission to educate, and does so in an unambiguous fashion. It is deeply effecting and relevant with great performances that challenge perceptions. It may well beg for awards nods, but it is nevertheless a film that needed to be made – and even more significant is that it was by a female crew too.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2014: ’71 ****

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This is Northern Ireland Troubles behind ‘enemy lines’ (from a British military perspective), a powerful cat-and-mouse game that makes ’71 an exhilarating watch from the start. There needed to be a fresh angle, which writer Gregory Burke evokes, making sure that there is enough Belfast streets-located violence to establish and drum home the effects of the sectarian violence, but to also ensure that it’s not an action replay of other films in the same genre.

In fact, the ending could be staged on any sink housing estate, and it’s this sense of ‘reality’ and possible familiarity that really grounds proceedings. In addition, ’71 stars one of the most exciting Brit actors to date, Jack O’Connell, who highly impressed with his angst-ridden portrayal of ironically-named Eric Love in LFF 2013 gritty prison drama Starred Up.

O’Connell plays young soldier Gary Hook, newly posted to Belfast in 1971 to assist the Ulster Constabulary in carrying out searches for IRA activity. He leaves a younger charge behind in the UK (this part of the story is unclear as to their relationship), as he experiences his first day on the streets. Tragedy mixed with lack of military command – accidentally abandoned by his unit – propels disoriented Hook into a dangerous situation, hunted by Sinn Fein while trying to get back to his barracks. A further explosive situation means he is also at danger from those supposedly on his own side.

This nail-nibbling drama has O’Connell’s magic touch to thank for its full impact. The actor seems to ooze violence and pent-up frustration like a ticking time bomb. His character here is no more vulnerable as in the 2013 film, only this time, Hook’s actions are mostly reactionary to his current situation. Amidst the storm there are brief snatches of reflection from Hook as he meets a cocky young boy who tries to help him. The rest of the film is a dangerous chase through open and confined spaces, accompanied by a feeling of hopelessness but propelled forward by the will to survive. It’s infectious as you want Hook to survive at all costs, if not for rendering the former futile if he does not.

Resident nasty Sean Harris stars as Sergeant Leslie Lewis, again proving his physical and acting prowess in such a role that will forever have him typecast but will bring him regular work for decades to come. Like O’Connell, his forte is putting his audience on edge as he has us wondering as to the full extent of his character’s capacity for malice. Lewis is no exception, turning out to be the biggest threat. In a sense, debut feature-film director Yann Demange has the right tools in place to coax out the best – and he does a fine job that is pure tension on tap.

The hard-hitting drama totally captures the surroundings of the decade too, shot in subdued, grainy tone to make it more relevant. However, because of the estate setting, this gives ’71 a surprisingly current, ‘street-wise’ feel, perhaps opening it up to a wider, younger audience who could empathise while make comparisons with life at the height of the Troubles. It’s an interesting take on the genre.

’71 will have you on the edge of your seat throughout. Like its lead character, there is no respite, even when Hook gets wounded. Adding a brilliant score from David Holmes further cements a cracking first feature for Demange and O’Connell’s natural flare for such action-drama parts.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2013: Mystery Road *****

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Beneath Clouds (2002) writer-director Ivan Sen has found a pitch-perfect niche in the crime-thriller genre with his new film Mystery Road, set in the Australian outback. This marvellously atmospheric and sumptuous-looking film has all the mellow attitude of a western, pausing to take in panoramic, burnt-orange sunrises and sunsets, while punctuated by bursts of action sequences straight out of a cowboy shootout, following mounting tension.

Mystery Road and Sen can also be credited for introducing the awe-inspiring Australian TV actor Aaron Pedersen to the international audience’s attention. Pedersen exudes an all-engrossing, controlled and authoritative presence on the big screen, not seen since the cowboy heydays of Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen or Burt Lancaster. Of Australian Aboriginal descent, Pedersen makes for a likely hero in Sen’s racially tense storylines, trying here to transcend local barriers as Aboriginal cop Jay Swan.

After the murder of a local Aboriginal girl, dumped by the roadside, Detective Swan is given the case on returning to his deprived hometown, following a lengthy absence. Keen to prove his skills honed in the city and solve the crime that throws up leads far too close to home, Swan encounters the ugly stranglehold of drugs and prostitution in his township, as well as strong racial tension that plays havoc with him doing the job. In addition, Swan experiences prejudice in the workplace, including locking horns with a narcotics cop (Hugo Weaving, untitled) who seems to be one of the main culprits running the show.

The film’s slow-burn pace brilliantly mirrors then reflects the building frustrations of its protagonist in trying to get leads, a tedious process but one that does not deter Swan. Hence, there are some exciting dynamics at play because of Swan’s exclusion from his own community – who don’t fully trust him, especially after his absence – and the White folk who dominate the local landscape and surrounding farms. The film speaks volumes about the plight of Aborigine deprivation and the widening gap between the haves and have-nots. The irony is the younger community are technology-savvy with smartphones featuring heavily as a tool of communication (and a stark contrast to the apparent domestic hardship) and a digital barrier to Swan’s tracking of clues and missing people.

Pedersen as Swan portrays a man of principle, never giving up on the goal and trying to get others to take a long, hard look at themselves, including the mother of his child. Even so, Sen suggests Swan is still a flawed character with dark secrets that are touched on but not explored to veer proceedings off course. That said the White characters are painted fairly two-dimensionally as rogues and cheats. There is a commendable turn from True Blood actor, Australian Ryan Kwanten as a misguided local bad boy who fits the Australian redneck mould perfectly. Admittedly, the clichés are perhaps more unavoidable in such a crime genre that comments on social ills than the leeway Sen had with his characters’ journey in Beneath Clouds.

Mystery Road offers nothing new in terms of crime plot, but its awesome setting and tenacious hero make it an absolute must-see, especially for western fans. It’s also a chance to marvel at Sen’s superior filmmaking talent that included shooting, editing and scoring, and to be introduced to Pedersen who is set for global screen domination after this.

5/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2013: Parkland ***

parkland

Writer-director Peter Landesman’s Parkland gives another relatively new angle on tragic events following the death of US President John F Kennedy on 22nd November 1963 in Dallas, Texas, offering the hospital portrayal at Dallas’ Parkland Hospital. It’s a solid piece of drama set to provoke the same disbelief from those who remember on the day and those too young to.

There are some equally solid performances from the likes of Paul Giamatti as Abraham Zapruder, the businessman who unwittingly took film camera footage of the fateful moment the bullet hit, allowing Giamatti ample leeway to expertly express Zapruder’s emotional arc, and James Badge Dale as Oswald’s stoic older brother, Robert, who faces the firing line. That said there is little actual fact to add to the whole historical account, just intriguing suggested reaction from the Oswald family to the news.

One such account is a possible police station confrontation between the Oswald brothers (Lee Harvey played by Jeremy Strong), which makes for a compelling story balance of opinion, also laying bare the writer-director’s thoughts on the alleged mystery surrounding who really shot JFK. This is very telling in Landesman’s ending, which is devoted to the Oswald family’s grief of being put in a compromising position and inviting empathetic after-thought on subsequent future repercussions on them.

Landesman skillfully concentrates on and depicts mounting chaos at Parkland, from the moment the President is brought in, and the confusion and disbelief of all staff involved, to the time of death and ludicrous legal and administrative obstacles that follow. Landesman’s peaks and troughs (being the characters’ reflections) drive the plot forward, keeping the energy flowing. The camera mimics, with vigorous momentum that sweeps you up in proceedings then pauses for the cold-hearted and clinical truth to seep in. The harrowing scene of the former President’s body being roughly loaded onto Airforce One by shocked staff is one prime example.

The next wave of action comes after Oswald’s shooting and the fascinating reaction from the same surgical team tasked with saving the President. The medical ensemble is where top-billed Zac Efron fits in as resident Dr Charles ‘Jim’ Carrico. Although commendable, the star billing is misleading as he shares as much screen time as Colin Hanks playing Carrico’s superior who deserves just as much acclaim. Landesman has drawn on a fine pool of acting talent that means all involved should take some credit.

In short, neatly produced Parkland has some compelling and fine performances and gives more exposure to the Oswald Family, but adds nothing groundbreaking in terms of investigative fact. It would be at home on the small screen too, though rightfully takes its place alongside other notable films on the topic that bolster the overall screen offering on one of the USA’s most charismatic leaders.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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