Friday 30 December 2011

Silent rapture: "The Artist", "The Lady", "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and "MI4" (ST 01/01/12)

The Artist (PG) 100 mins ****
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (18) 157 mins **

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (12A) 133 mins ***

The Lady (12A) 132 mins ***

In the year Messrs. Scorsese and Spielberg signed up for the digital 3D revolution, it seems perversely fitting the Best Picture Oscar may yet go to the kind of black-and-white confection that eased audiences through the last Depression. The Artist is hardly revolutionary. Its conceit – presenting modern viewers with an example of the silent cinema revered in picture palaces of yore – has been done before, by Mel Brooks, in 1976’s Silent Movie; its story arc – troubled figure finds renewed form of communication with his public – last played out in a little film called The King’s Speech, and we know what happened there.

Its key references date back further still, to Singin’ in the Rain and A Star is Born. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a matinee idol in 1920s Hollywood, finds his star heading south with the advent of sound, and eventually eclipsed by sometime sweetheart Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), introduced as a pretty face in the crowd at one of his premieres. Art Deco staircases serve to illustrate the vagaries of the showbiz ladder: Peppy’s name, misspelt on her early films’ credits, soon gravitates to everybody’s lips, save those of the insistently mute Valentin – the lover without the climactic “o”, and a man who cannot speak his affections.

Because, for the most part, The Artist really is a silent movie: Valentin’s opening line (“I will not talk!”) appears on a title card as he undergoes torture in the context of his latest spy adventure, and in this, he proves as good as his transcribed word. French director Michel Hazanavicius makes clever use of both the ensuing silence and what few effects there are, notably in a Twilight Zone-like nightmare wherein Valentin realises everything in his world (a whisky glass, passing traffic, his prototypically faithful dog) is capable of emitting a noise, save his own larynx. 

Both leads do sterling work to sustain the conceit. Dujardin’s expert pantomiming is topped by a born crowdpleaser’s smile that remains on just the right side of fromage, while Bejo is radiant and spirited in a way actresses stuck with today’s more complex assignments are rarely permitted to be. The Artist’s desire to transcend mere retro-gimmickry becomes apparent when her Peppy visits a hospitalised George, and unrolls the film he’s rescued from a house fire: the footage shows the first scene the pair shot together before their career trajectories diverged.

Somewhere within The Artist’s more generalised nostalgia, there resides a romantic idea about celluloid as memory: as we prepare to enter a digital age characterised by pixels and noise, Hazanavicius reminds us there might be elements of the past worth preserving, pockets of resonant silence which speak louder than all the words uttered since. Perhaps it’s indicative of the decline in Hollywood standards that a skilfully assembled entertainment – no more, no less – should be receiving such wild acclaim. Skilful The Artist is, though, and undeniably entertaining: living, if not quite talking, proof the movies are still capable of innocence, and joy. 

The holiday’s other releases require a certain indulgence: they’re best watched dozy, and with a selection box to hand. David Fincher’s Gothy cover version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo proves superficially more cinematic than its Swedish predecessor, but suffers from Rooney Mara’s Ryvita-thin reading of Lisbeth Salander – all clip-on piercings, stick-on tattoos – and a nagging sense the director’s heart wasn’t in such pulp. Damningly, this version contrives to be six minutes draggier than the already boxy original; one need only compare it to this director’s probing two-and-a-half-hour masterpiece Zodiac to see how barely engaged Fincher is here. 

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol fares slightly better: The Incredibles’ Brad Bird treats the franchise’s fourth instalment as a live-action cartoon, redoubling its scale with every set-piece. The in-every-sense highpoint finds Tom Cruise’s superspy Ethan Hunt scaling Dubai’s 2,700-ft Burj Khalifa single-handed, one of recent cinema’s foremost “rather you than me, mate” moments. Elsewhere, the quality control fluctuates, resulting in less a coherent film than a flicker-book compilation of physically unfeasible, amusingly absurd images: yes, it’s the kind of movie where Tom Cruise – arms pumping, teeth gritted – tries to outrun a sandstorm.

With The Lady, Luc Besson seeks karmic equilibrium for producing those films in which Liam Neeson stomped about Europe kicking foreigners in the face. A reverent biopic of Burmese resistance icon Aung San Suu Kyi (here, a dignified Michelle Yeoh), it functions as a wide-eyed primer, equating democracy with domesticity, and its heroine’s return home to care for an ailing mother with her attempts to cure the wider sickness plaguing her motherland. Eccentric diversions from the Big Biopic norm include a cherishably mundane episode which sees Suu Kyi’s Oxford don hubby (David Thewlis) popping into Mace for some Whitworths Dried Fruit: this, too, we gather, is a freedom, of some kind.

The Artist opens in London today, and nationwide next Friday; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and The Lady are in cinemas nationwide.

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