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 2016: Nocturnal Animals ****

With a creative like fashion designer turned film-maker Tom Ford at the helm, his second big-screen venture was always going to be another thing of great beauty to watch. Whereas A Single Man still deals with ugliness tainting its glossy surface, Nocturnal Animals goes a step further and is more visceral, part exquisite art display, part bleak crime thriller – as though Ford is dipping his film-making toe into another genre to test his skills, while still being cushioned by his trademark chic.

Amy Adams plays high society art gallery owner Susan, whose marriage is crumbling, as is her sense of being. Her life changes after she receives a copy of her ex-husband’s novel, a violent thriller that seems to be based on their past – a veiled threat and a symbolic revenge tale.

Adams was a Ford leading lady waiting to happen. Her looks, pose and expressive nature wonderfully relay all the emotions that Susan is going through, amplified by the ‘pretty bird in a gilded cage’ scenario she finds herself in. There is a sense of foreboding in the calm of her perfect existence, as though she challenges the status quo in order to feel alive again when all around her feels stagnant. Adams effortlessly carries these scenes until the next dramatic revelation from the fictional side of the story – the recreation of the novel she is reading.

Jake Gyllenhaal is both the ex-husband in flashbacks and the novel’s grief-stricken and tormented protagonist, being no stranger to such dark roles from his previous work. It’s here in the film that Ford’s biggest contrasts happen, even injecting bouts of displaced beauty in the midst of depravity and despair. As solid as Gyllenhaal is in the role, it’s actually Aaron Taylor-Johnson as perp Ray Marcus who utterly steals the scenes – definitely a defining moment for him as he fleshes out every odious, unpredictable and terrifying characteristic of Marcus. Michael Shannon as cynical old-school detective Bobby Andes brings up the rear of exceptional casting, an actor who gives the film a gravitas and 1950s-style essence in his acting style. As stunning as the Adams scenes are, Ford has proved that he is more than capable of producing a thriller without the sheen.

What comes across with Nocturnal Animals is a passion for a project, attention to detail and dramatic Hitchcockian production values. The intensity sometimes dips as we are thrust back into the banality of Susan’s priviledged existence, though simply serves to tease us and keep us in awe of the next part of the gruesome puzzle being exposed – ironically, where the film’s true passions and sentiment stem from.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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LFF 2015: Men and Chicken ****

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In a sick twist that might have Darwinists uniting with the god-fearing out there, writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen (Adam’s Apples (2005)) places Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal) once more in the midst of a darkly insane comedy, this time about ‘origins of man’. The title of Jensen’s latest penmanship, Men and Chicken, gives a small clue as to humans and animals being involved and throws up some interesting ideas about our gene pool along the way.

When Elias (Mikkelsen) and Gabriel (David Dencik)’s elderly father passes away, he leaves them a video to watch. To their shock, they find out he is not their biological father – their mothers they never knew. They are in fact half-brothers, and their real father lives on the remote island of Ork. Armed with questions, the brothers go in search of him, to discover he is a scientist and his des res is a remote, dilapidated sanatorium (over)run by their insane half-brothers, Franz (Søren Malling), Josef (Nicolas Bro) and Gregor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) who live with a bunch of animals and favour violence as a way of dealing with family disputes. But where is Dad? An accident extends Elias and Gabriel’s stay, where the dark secrets of their family’s past are found in the basement.

This gloriously eccentric and near gothic farce has a hint of Psycho to it. It sets the whacky scene from the start with the camera panning down to ‘dad’s’ crotch as he’s delivering his video message. Introduced to Elias, a definite Asperger’s sufferer with a sex addiction (Mikkelsen in delightfully ghastly, against-type form), and Gabriel, an academic but socially inept worrier, the penny drops that something isn’t quite right. Just how are these two related – physical similarities aside? It’s time for a short road (and ferry) journey to fictional hillbilly Denmark.

The cast are exceptional, wilfully blending acts of politically incorrect humour and perversion with moments of wistful vulnerability in the most unusual coming-of-age comedy in a long time. Aside from the slapstick beatings – like something from a less than silent movie age, the funniest scene is more vocal. It sees the brothers sat around a dinner table in ‘last supper’ fashion, introduced to a Bible for the first time by Gabriel, acting like some crusader who plans to civilise his siblings. Here, Jensen pokes fun at interpretation of the holy book and use of it as a tool to separate man from beast, giving a devilishly simplistic account that’s sure to be controversial to some, but highly amusing to, say, Dawkins fans.

The quirky sibling activity actually serves as a bizarre bonding session, including the communal sleeping and badminton matches, where each brother has a key feature needed for the other’s development and social conditioning. The latter might be in vain but it’s all in aid of the grand reveal, the clues of which – with hindsight – are subtle characteristics of the personalities. This is highly hilarious and equally shocking to witness while captured by Sebastian Blenkov’s atmospheric and tonally significant cinematography.

Men and Chicken is an extraordinary dark comedy for those wanting pitched blackness and heaps of lunacy. Strip away social conditioning and religion, and ironically, while the insane might run the asylum their actions begin to appear explainable, even normalising, when compared to the outside world’s perspective.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2015: Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) ***

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Nothing grabs initial attention like a film about promiscuous young love, especially one set in ‘sexually uninhibited’ France – sunny Biarritz in the South West here. Even more so, one that toys with the term ‘gang bang’ in its full title.

Undeniably a confident debut from writer-director Eva Husson, who comes from a music video background, Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) is not short on cinematic style. It also confidently explores modern aspects that affect sexual development too. It just does little else unique that French filmmakers haven’t already done with sexual exploration and coming-of-age themes in the past.

We are party to the downtime of several ‘bored’ suburban high-school teens who decide to create a private orgy club at one boy’s house while his mother is away on business. However, far from liberating them, youthful emotions get in the way, all publicised on social media, causing problems for some and divisions on a whole.

Husson favours the ‘voyeur’ camera style in much of her work, the setting for which is in the opening scene, seen through the eyes of one of the party – we find out whom later on. There is a softly lit, subdued tone to her cinematography, almost dreamlike, as well as an equally chilled pace that sets the scene for the players to relax and explore. Interestingly though, as reality sets in for the characters, this cinematic style becomes more ‘exposing’ and sharper focused. It’s this style verses the ‘ferocious’ pace of social media and pockets of tension that nicely play at odds but also compliment and move the plot forward.

In fact, the film’s threat is the invasion of modern-day communication methods in an otherwise idyllic innocence that the viewer is made to watch being unleashed. One such character stands as the moral compass, albeit on the sidelines to start with, until he too, through desire and opportunity, slips up – but does get to redeem himself. What is intriguing is watching the fallout and guessing the casualties from this social experiment.

The acting from a mainly debut cast is quite admirable, showing Husson’s skill at putting her ensemble at ease. There is even one to watch, Marilyn Lima, who looks like a modern-day Brigitte Bardot or Emmanuelle Béart and holds her own against the more established Daisy Broom of Girlhood (2014) and Leaving (2009) fame.

As is the case with a lot of newcomer talent, the film only stretches the imagination so far before lack of writing experience shows through – and once you have seen some teen experimentation, it does become tedious. Husson must see the action-reaction of her promiscuous teens through to the end, but Bang Gang does flag even with its controversial subject. Still, Husson has a powerful first vehicle to drive home with, if not as a critique of modern-day pressures on youth.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2014: The Silent Storm ***

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May the wrath of God help the last remaining inhabitants of an obscure, wee Scottish Island as documentary maker Corinna McFarlane (Three Miles North of Molkom (2008)) tries her hand at fiction writing and directing with The Silent Storm. It’s a credit to this fledging feature filmmaker that such an impressive cast came onboard – Damian Lewis formerly of Homeland and Andrea Riseborough of Oblivion – and for the most part, she is indebted to them for making any sense of this wild tale.

After the mill closes and the locals must depart for the mainland to earn a living, Protestant preacher Balor (Lewis) and his younger, loyal wife Aislin (Riseborough) remain on a remote Scottish island. The hardline minister is convinced that life (and industry) will return one day soon – and so will his flock. Prone to violent outbursts and abuse, Balor tries to busy himself for that day while Aislin retreats to being at one with nature and her Pagan beliefs in healing, much to her staunch religious husband’s annoyance.

One day, Balor gets a call from a charity that a Glaswegian youth with a supposed past, Fionn (Ross Anderson of Unbroken) will be entrusted into their care, with the hope of ‘curing’ the violent error of his ways. Island outcast Aislin sees a kindred spirit in this young delinquent, and feelings develop between the pair as they spend more time together. They grow stronger when fanatical Balor decides to dismantle the local kirk (church) and take it by boat to the mainland, leaving them alone on the island.

There is something quite engaging about The Silent Storm when the plot is very thin. It’s a combination of the landscape, the rugged weather and some intense performances that prop it up. After trying to work out the time period it’s set in – apparently between World Wars, though it could be anything from the 40s through to the late 50s, the next hurdle before you settle down to the enveloping storm is getting over the bizarre accents.

Both Lewis and Riseborough are naturally captivating, pouring their heart and soul into their bleak portrayals, but speaking in Scottish tongue is not their forte, especially Lewis. In fact, even though we are given clues as to Aislin’s bizarre arrival on the island, she could be anything from Scottish to French to Scandinavian as her accent continually morphs and is distracting. The only reason for her marriage to controlling Balor is one of being press-ganged into the union, perhaps, or out of safety and harms way from the other religious islanders.

The cinematography fuels the mood swings this film has, with warmer colours – and more colourful clothing for Aislin when her husband’s away – contrasted with a stormy, Turner-styled palette for painting the black, alcohol-fuelled scenes with barmy Balor. This is equally effective in setting the atmosphere, but could just be another well-intentioned diversion from the limited plot.

The story takes a trippy turn when Aislin and Fionn spend a day away in the forest, completely changing the film’s tempo and injecting some (unintentional) humour. It seems McFarlane may have spent too much time back in 2008 with the inhabitants of Ängsbacka, and wants to recreate those fun-filled hippy moments in this. It just confuses matters, taking us away from the solitary confinement that the film does well to create.

Still, the director copes well with killing the happy, clappy mood, back at the Balor house. And just when there seems to be almighty fallout building when the preacher finds out, things fizzle out before all hell is unleashed. Again, Lewis and co keep the acute tension in their love triangle tight and suffocating – it’s just anyone’s guess as to where things go next.

The Silent Storm is a fair effort in feature filmmaking, but perhaps, McFarlane should tackle another stronger writer’s material in future with the same kind of tools and talent. That said those who can’t get enough of Lewis and Riseborough will not be disappointed. Whether this indie film makes enough of a rumble at the box office is anyone’s guess too.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2015: The Witch ****

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Billed as a ‘horror’ and set in the usual stomping ground of some creepy, foreboding woodland, The Witch by costume designer-turned-debut-writer/director Robert Eggers could be misconstrued as the standard scare-affair, with supernatural things lurking in the shadows, watching and waiting to make their presence known.

Be warned: the ‘horror’ is in fact more about the Puritanical lifestyle that the settler family lives in 17th Century New England, and the wrath of God justice should any of them step out of line. In this respect, there is a significant psychological impact to The Witch as all existence feels alien and unnerving to its latter-day audience.

William (Ralph Ineson from Game of Thrones) and his family, wife Katherine (Kate Dickie, also from Game of Thrones), eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy, Philippa from Endeavour), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and young twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) are banished from their settlement by a Puritan court. They set up a modest home and small farm at the edge of some woodland.

Their religious piety cements their well-being. However, when their newborn son Samuel goes missing one day in Thomasin’s care, their meager and harsh existence begins to unravel and their faith is rocked to the core.

This slow-burning and sumptuous-looking tale is very visceral to watch and listen to. It is also devoid of special effects. Accompanying the subdued, earthy palette is the equally grueling speech of the era that instantly places you on the back foot. Trying to decipher what is being said with such emotion by the characters conjures a natural anxiety, preparing you for the mystery to unfold, even as you are still trying to get your bearings.

Eggers keeps things ambiguous throughout, right to the end frame. What feels like a standard period horror after the baby disappears is soon extinguished. The finger of ‘blame’ moves back and forth, even suggesting a goat is the culprit. As victims are taken, the wrongdoer must be unveiled eventually, surely? This is the film’s hold.

As sacrifices are made, the result is abhorrent to watch, and uncompromisingly brutal, starting with Baby Samuel’s demise early on that will repulse all. There is also that lingering, persistent fear of some unjust abuse occurring at any one moment that may well have been ‘normal’ behaviour at the time, but is forbidden nowadays. The familiar sexual connotations concerning Thomasin, in particular, feel unsavoury to witness.

The cast may be a list of TV stars – and it helps they are not household names, but all are magnificent in this on the big screen, especially Taylor-Joy. Her innocent beauty is simultaneously captivating and threatening, rendering her an unknown factor throughout. Ineson is raw and wounded as William, helpless to the forces at play, and up against seemingly dominant female personalities. Indeed, it’s not entirely clear why this family was cast out of the settlement at the start – was it of their own doing? Eggers makes them a complete enigma which is fascinating. The acting alone ensures the film ticks along menacingly.

The Witch initially feels like a well-worn horror tale of old with distinguishable tropes. Nevertheless, once the layers are peeled back, there is a world of doubt and terror to experience in this art-house horror. The key is this is self-perpetuating as a present-day viewer – if you relinquish to the lifestyle experience you are witnessing, rather than have the scares delivered on a plate, as is the usual horror diet.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2015: Bone Tomahawk ****

Bone-Tomahawk

First glance at Bone Tomahawk’s poster would have Western fans rubbing their hands with glee, potentially putting off Horror junkies. It’s a curious film that could either be a Western with Horror traits, or a period slasher film set in the Wild West. Either way, it has a remarkable quality as it genuinely invests in its characters. Hence, purely labelling it a slasher with the standard bloody body count is wholly inaccurate.

When two residents of the small settler town of Bright Hope go missing, Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) and his unlikely crew of right-hand man, wise-cracking Chicory (Richard Jenkins), one of the kidnapped’s wounded husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson) and local ‘Dapper Dan’ Brooder (Matthew Fox) head out on the trail of some cannibalistic Indians in a daring rescue attempt.

An air of unease looms from the very start of the film, with a fledging town rather exposed to a building malaise. It’s standard Western tactics, introducing the key players and pointing out their main characteristics. Once the foursome head off though, although you get the usual plodding horseback ride and stunning vistas then the campfire chat, it’s clear this ‘Western’ needs us to invest in its characters, so we can truly empathise with their later predicament.

Here is where writer/debut director S. Craig Zahler (writer of only one feature before, The Incident (2011)) really excels. These four could be transported into any time, any scenario because it’s their developing rapport that makes for fascinating viewing. Zahler also adds great humour that cleverly kneads the tension and fear of the unknown. He also makes the journey play out very much like real-time, though the two-hour run-time goes by very quickly.

Russell, Wilson and Fox (in a commendable against-type role) are brilliantly cast and make for an intriguing ensemble. However, it’s Jenkins’ loveable ‘old fool’ character that steals the show, coming up with the most oddly hilarious, diverting conversations in the thick of the moment. In fact, his character is the most complex – it’s clear Chicory has history and seen a lot in life, but he’s also very humbling and loyal all the same.

The film turns into a The Hills Have Eyes in the second half, ramping up the gore and casting an almost ‘supernatural’ shadow over proceedings. However, it always keeps things grounded and believable, what with alien customs in force, even though you want to be repulsed by the ‘other-worldly’ events occurring.

Zahler’s Indians are some of the most repellent any Western could possibly offer, but also some of the most privately primitive – the latter description sounding vaguely racial, but those who see the film will get the sense of this observation. There is a lot of contrast between what’s classed as ‘civilised’ behaviour and the latter, which touches on the Western tropes and further cements this genre with the slasher side.

Therefore, Bone Tomahawk is an immensely satisfying offering that will appeal to both Western and Horror camps and it looks great, production-wise. With some great acting and thoughtful directing, it certainly is one of the most refreshing Western off-shoots in a long time.

 

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2015: A Bigger Splash ****

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Fans of Jacques Deray’s 1969 film La Piscine will be curious about this English-language remake by I Am Love’s Luca Guadagnino. The cast alone is a major draw, with Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson and Matthias Schoenaerts centred around the pool in question. This time, the simmering tensions play out on the Italian island of Pantelleria off the Sicilian coast, instead of the South of France.

Swinton (I Am Love) plays retired international rock star Marianne Lane who is recovering from losing her voice and living in self-imposed exile at a villa retreat with younger boyfriend, former documentary film-maker Paul (Schoenaerts). Both are taking time out – with Paul getting over an attempted suicide, when their sanctuary is rocked by the arrival of brash ex-music producer and Marianne’s former lover Harry (Fiennes) who brings along his Lolita-looking teen daughter Penelope (Johnson) that he’s just reconciled with. Harry has designs on getting Marianne back while Penelope is interested in Paul. Sexual tensions brew as dark clouds form over the whole unsettled affair.

Guadagnino’s palette changes with the film’s moods to entice us while warning us of impending danger. It’s like watching a stage production unfold under deliberate lighting changes, as the setting is as much a lead character as its actors. The telling first scene of change to come sees Marianne and Paul content as ‘pigs in mud’ – literally – as Harry’s plane flies overhead, casting a shadow over the couple. From that moment, Guadagnino uses light and shade to set the stage, dictating how we should feel to impressive effect.

As Swinton commendably acts as much as one can when your character has no voice, still invoking the required emotion at any one time, it’s down to Fiennes to invigorate and stir the emotional pot. This has got to be one of his finest performances in a long time. Harry is such a free-willed man tornado who throws caution to the wind that you are both delighted by and troubled by his presence in each of his scenes. His flippant remarks either have you scoffing or laughing out loud, or wincing with embarrassment or pity. The beauty is, Harry is equally bruised by past regrets that you cannot simply dismiss him. He’s the film’s devilish catalyst and anti-hero.

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Harry paves the way for Johnson’s Penelope’s unhealthy interest to grow. In fact, you could argue her character merely awakens the status quo from their stagnant slumber, as no one is actually happy, regardless of the stunning surroundings. To be honest, their imperfections are nothing compared to how the local law enforcement comes across in this film, including caging boat migrants in the town’s local immigration camp – a controversial political statement of our current times, if ever there was one. This feels like a deliberate red rag by the film-maker, but also acts a convenient comparison between haves and have-nots – the former still not getting it completely right with the whole world at their feet.

The film is perfectly cast, including Johnson who is usually ‘vanilla’ in performance, but always seductive (unintentionally sometimes) and easy on the eye though. Her laid-back delivery works in her favour here, as she and all the other characters play their cards close to their chest, keeping you constantly wondering as to their real motives. The only clues are Penelope’s reading material, making her less of a closed book. This goes to fuel the friction and distrust, leading to inevitable tragedy. It’s deliciously infectious, like watching a beautifully executed ‘whodunit’ developing in paradise.

Rolling Stones fans will also come in for a treat with lots of music, reminiscing and nods to their heroes, as Harry revels in fond memories of his former hell-raising lifestyle. It’s all retro hip – including the villa itself. Whereas La Piscine had a blue-bottomed pool, this one is a sheer piece of art in itself, formed like a natural sunken bath that’s both inviting and later constricting and broken-looking as it takes its casualty.

The inherent problem with the film is its ending and who is left that make for a damp squib of a finale after the emotional rollercoaster. There is also a strange tonal aspect that involves a final, semi-comical turn by local plod. It cheapens the emotional dynamism of the former. In fact the triumphant character we are left with is not necessarily one we care about the most. Therefore, there are no winners, leaving you flat in emotion.

Nevertheless, A Bigger Splash is must-see viewing for those who like a modern-day tragedy of forbidden longing, both in acting and setting. It could have been perfectly envisaged with a rethink of the ending to keep the momentum from fizzling out too early, even with the necessary ‘calm after the storm’. That said it is a successful English-language remake by a great emerging feature-making talent in Guadagnino – who has honed his skills in short-film-making – that rightfully stands alone.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2015: Trumbo ****

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If there was any doubt left as to Bryan Cranston’s acting prowess after Walter White in Breaking Bad, his latest incarnation as blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo will silenced that. Entitled Trumbo, director Jay Roach and writer John McNamara’s cinematic take on Bruce Cook’s book is another Cranston career highlight to date that has put him in the running for Best Actor gong at this year’s Oscars.

Tales of America’s deep-rooted fear of Communism always make for intriguing viewing, but this niche subject matter set in the Hollywood heartland might seem a touch self-indulgent and could take more of a sell at the box office for a non-American audience. Thanks to Breaking Bad, though, some might be persuaded to dabble.

However, Trumbo ought to be seen first and foremost as a story about freedom of expression, something that should never be taken for granted. It follows just that, the story of the hugely successfully screenwriter in the 1940s/50s who was blacklisted by the film industry for his alleged far-left views and jailed along with fellow colleagues.

In order to start working again on release, Trumbo re-penned new scripts for low-budget flicks under a pseudonym. Naturally, all became highly profitable at the box office in their own right – one even won an Oscar. This source of income allowed Trumbo to employ his down-on-their-luck writer friends. It was only after some big industry names took a chance on him in the 1960s that he was able to come back into the limelight, much to the disgust of snide gossip columnist – and ‘Commie outer’ – Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) who wielded a lot of power with studio bosses and fed the Red fear.

Cranston is consistently absorbing as Trumbo throughout, a complex mixture of self-assured warmth, brilliant wit and liberal-thinking, but also narcissistic and pig-headed, virtually driving his wife Cleo (brilliantly underplayed by Diane Lane) and young family away, as he imposed his crushing lifestyle on them – even ‘employing’ them in his new clandestine venture. Cranston’s charm radiates from the screen in Trumbo’s enlightening moments, causing you to fully realise the charisma of the man. Equally shocking are Trumbo’s moments of grandeur, though you admire his dedication to the written word.

Mirren as Hopper is delightfully conniving and despicably scheming, having blackmail down to a fine art while being the perfect opponent for Trumbo to clash with. There are many choice words exchanged between the two that keep the script bouncing along and highly entertaining, making Trumbo’s end triumph much sweeter.

The film suffers the same folly as any other that tries to get actors to portray big-screen icons. David James Elliott only just captures a youthful John Wayne’s essence but seems pitifully inadequate when up against Cranston’s Trumbo. Only Dean O’Gorman’s Kirk Douglas cuts the mustard in his Spartacus (1960) heyday, and that of Christian Berkel’s Otto Preminger – the director who took a chance on Trumbo with Exodus (1960).

Credit too, to Louis C.K. who sweats and frets it out as fictional screenwriter friend Arlen Hird, Trumbo’s greatest critic and voice of reason. Hird feels like a real-life character because he is based on real-life communist screenwriters Samuel Ornitz, Alvah Bessie, Albert Maltz, Lester Cole and John Howard Lawson.

John Goodman is a fizzy tonic as the blunt, headstrong small studio boss Frank King too, providing some of the lighter, funnier Trumbo altercations – and sticking it to the ‘big boys’.

Trumbo is highly stylised to match the era, even glossy in cinematography, fully immersing you in that environment, while striking a chord with Film Noir fans in Trumbo’s darker moments. It’s a piece of cinematic competency, in acting and production – definitely one for Cranston fans not to miss.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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