In Darkness (15) 145 mins ***
We Bought a Zoo (PG) 124 mins **
Both the title and running time of the Turkish film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia establish certain expectations: of something epic, ruminative, serious-minded. These it will prove, yet the latest masterwork from director Nuri Bilge Ceylan initially confounds expectations, simply by being funny, in a way Ceylan’s earlier works – like the solemn Uzak and Climates – rarely allowed for. This philosophic procedural starts from a droll joke about habeas corpus, or the absence thereof, dispatching us on a dusk-till-dawn drive through the remote Anatolian countryside alongside several individuals caught up in a murder investigation.
The investigation, like the film, is going nowhere fast. No-one can find the body for starters, even with the alleged killer in the car. One recurring hitch is that – for all Ceylan’s unrivalled expertise at photographing landscapes – one hillock looks much the same as another in the dark. Stumbling over possible burial grounds, the searchers revert to the kind of tangential conversation reserved for wild goose chases, riffing on the availability of yoghurt and the mounting possibility of overtime: “The money’s good when it’s a corpse,” notes one rookie, enthusiastically.
We begin to compare and contrast: the mute permanence of the countryside with the triviality of the chat, the life-and-death importance of the assignment with the essential cluelessness of those undertaking it. Several coppers wet their socks in streams; names are repeatedly mispronounced. Having exhausted all biscuit supplies, the patrolmen are reduced to shaking trees for sustenance, and the grace note that results suggests – as did a similar sequence in Climates involving a macadamia nut – that Ceylan is a filmmaker uniquely interested in the way things roll, however long it takes, wherever it takes us.
As the cortege progresses, these topographic twists and turns come to be matched by those in the stories told by the variously lined, wistful or shattered men: for the first time in a Ceylan film, the characters come to feel approachable, rather than mere figures in grand designs. As police captain Naci, Yilmaz Erdogan is the standout performer, displaying a toughened, lived-in humanity reminiscent of Bob Hoskins. Yet even here, the film sets up appreciable contrasts: between the cops’ brute-force incompetence, the suspect’s silence, the medical examiner’s calm rationality, and the prosecutor’s openness to the uncanny.
These players draw us into not just a complete universe, but its specific time scheme: we’re left feeling as though we’ve also been up all night, witnessing something of what it is to be mortal or alone, and at the mercy of others. If the final act risks appearing too literal an autopsy of the human condition, that’s only down to the exceptionally high dramatic and pictorial standards Ceylan has maintained elsewhere. In Anatolia, even the mid-film drinks break – a pause at a rural encampment, where the chief’s beautiful daughter brings these journeymen light and succour – is mysterious, somehow profound, and the very essence of cinema.
In Darkness, a Foreign Film Oscar nominee from Poland, sploshes in the footsteps of that country’s great director Andrzej Wajda, by exploring how civilisation retreated to the sewers under the German occupation. Agnieszka Holland’s drama foregrounds those vile surface-level humiliations – denuded Jewish women being chased through forests into waiting graves, rabbis having their beards ripped out – that led many to consider the dank, stinking tunnels below Lvov welcome refuge. The focus, however, is on Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), the (non-Jewish) fixer who, for a fee, provided guidance for a fractious group underground.
While not entirely inappropriate, Holland’s filmmaking can feel cramped itself. A dozen main characters’ squabbles are packed between narrow escapes and snatched lovemaking, rendering the storytelling anecdotal, even predictable in places: any flicker of cheer is routinely doused by a bobbing corpse, and you don’t have to know Schindler’s List to suspect Socha will realise there’s more to his task than making money. If In Darkness finally emerges as rather oppressive viewing, it retains a potent way with generalities, evoking terrible events unfolding above its characters’ heads, the thickening of already musty air with suspicion.
The insistent uplift of We Bought a Zoo, by contrast, only suggests writer-director Cameron Crowe ran out of things to say after 2000’s Almost Famous: misty-eyed and flabby, his latest has the tranquilising effect of watching three episodes of Wild at Heart back-to-back. The creaky movie template that sees a ramshackle property parallel a protagonist’s fixer-upper heart gets another airing; the novelty is widower Matt Damon acquires a menagerie of porcupines and ostriches to hustle him from his inertia into zookeeper Scarlett Johansson’s arms. There are nice lines and sweet spots, but a lot of manure, both literal and figurative, has to be shovelled before we get to them.
Once Upon A Time In Anatolia and In Darkness are on selected release; We Bought a Zoo is in cinemas nationwide.