Friday 17 February 2012

Aftershocks: "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" and "Hadewijch" (ST 19/02/12)

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (12A) 129 mins **
Hadewijch (12A) 105 mins ****

Adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close strives to do for 9/11 what Life is Beautiful did for the Holocaust: reframe an overwhelming horror in terms a pre-teen might comprehend. Its nine-year-old hero Oskar (Thomas Horn) finds a key in the belongings of his father, who died in the Towers, and sets out to see where it might fit. The quest becomes a way of keeping pop’s memory alive, yet the boy’s encounters reveal he isn’t the only one needing the security of putting keys into locks: his fellow New Yorkers are likewise scared or hurting, some struck dumb by their experiences.

Representing the latter, there’s Max von Sydow as an oldtimer who holds up tattooed palms to speak: a role too whimsical to ring true, despite the actor’s Oscar nomination. Yet the film is beset with similar problems of communication, having to find ways of talking or cutting round the attacks to secure a kid-friendly rating. When Oskar lists everything he’s terrified by post-9/11 – the people, the sirens, the surviving buildings – it’s a deft sketch of the prevailing climate of fear. But sketches are all we get: with the novel’s already episodic narrative broken down further for easier consumption, the film can’t even begin to convey loss on any scale.

The adult leads do decent work in the circumstances. It’s not inappropriate shorthand to cast cuddly Tom Hanks as a composite of all those fathers lost in the attacks, and as Oskar’s mother, Sandra Bullock again proves herself subtler than her material, crafting in a few short scenes a portrait of a widow who remains mother enough to notice her son’s plight. Yet too much rests on the untried Horn’s shoulders, and he’s too eager, too poised, to ever appear truly distressed, rather than merely showbiz-distressed. Oskar carries a tambourine round with him as an emotional crutch: I felt you should be warned.

Such crutches abound. Those flickers of raw grief Daldry permits – such as Oskar howling his wish that his mother had died instead – are packaged altogether safely, with soft lighting and tinkly piano music, then a final round of hugs and thank-you notes. While nowhere near catastrophic, the film’s default tact, its respectful distance from the events depicted, results in something far less immediate and vivid than its own title suggests. Oskar eventually turns the Twin Towers into a neatly wrapped pop-up book, but the Extremely Loud experience is closer to staring at those soothingly banal frescoes tacked to the office walls of therapists.

From the aftereffects of terrorism, we pass to its possible causes. Hadewijch shares a 12A rating with Daldry’s film, but otherwise these two films don’t so much come from different places as separate universes. Here, the French director Bruno Dumont applies his provocatively austere style to a contemporary parable centring on an exiled bride of Christ. Expelled from her convent for pursuing the extremes of her faith, Céline (Julie Sokolowski) returns to Paris, where she finds herself drawn towards a gang of young Muslims from the projects.

What follows is prickly, complex filmmaking, designed to test the audience’s faith in the cinema and miracles alike – not to mention a rare modern work to look Islam squarely in the eye. See it for Sokolowski, giving one of the least acted, most purely felt performances of recent times, and for the extraordinary finale – part rupture, part Rapture – which co-opts imagery from both Michael Bay and Robert Bresson, while leaving room for ambiguities of its own. You may emerge violently disagreeing with some or all of it, but – set against Daldry’s baby talk – Dumont’s feels like a film worth debating.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is in cinemas nationwide; Hadewijch opens in selected cinemas from today.

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