Thursday, 18 October 2018

The high Low Country: "Gangsta"

Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah - who bill themselves, with typical informality, as simply Adil and Bilall - are the young Flemish writer-directors who made an impression across Europe with their 2015 thriller Black. Their follow-up Gangsta returns us to the same inner-city milieu, though it's very much a film of two halves: the freshness and cheek its makers display early on wears off with a dismaying rapidity. Its boldest move, as contemporary crime drama, is to throw back not to Tarantino or Guy Ritchie, but to those religiose gangster movies of the 1930s, describing the haphazard swathe one credulous slacker cuts through the Antwerp drug trade with structuring help from the seven deadly sins. Sloth is the life our boy leads before his life of crime (bunking off, gaming, masturbation); envy enters the picture after a sharpsuited Dutch kingpin speeds into town to offload several kilos of cocaine and makes off with our boy's dreamgirl. Gluttony is what he spends his ill-gotten gains on; wrath is left until late on.

It's a nifty way of reshuffling and reordering some very familiar ingredients (corrupt cops, montages of coke consumption apparently cut by someone who's taken a very big snort, a Taxi Driver homage here, a Fast & Furious-style drag race there), and these are cut with newer elements that keep the pulse rate and interest levels high for a while. Chief among these: a matter-of-fact multiculturalism, approached here head-on, from the inside out, which generates grace notes regarding the ways race and skin colour affects characters already subsisting on the margins, and the cops on their tail. Considerable superficial pleasure can be drawn from the directors' decision to shoot Antwerp, of all places, as though it were the sun-bright Florida of a Grand Theft Auto sequel, and not just a few miles down the track from where the Dardenne brothers have traditionally operated. (Reports linking this pair with the long-gestating Bad Boys and Beverly Hills Cop sequels make more sense once you've seen the film.)

Everyone's heading for a pretty precipitous fall, however. This is the kind of post-Refn cinéma du look that owes it to itself (and to its audience) to get in, get the job done, and get out without undue fuss or labour; instead, Gangsta ploughs on for a full two hours, allowing ample time for its irreverent highs to wear off, and for what at first seems like youthful cheek to stray into outright waywardness. You can feel these directors egging one another on, resulting in frequent missteps: a POV shot from between anonymous breasts off which coke is being snorted, a fake-out ending that offers only false hope, nasty, leering dollops of violence. Possibly the idea was to shock us - as our hero is shocked to realise the game he's playing has very real consequences - but the tactics the filmmakers deploy start to seem like ugly cliches rather than directorial playthings. Gangsta remains notably more cosmopolitan than Nick Love's The Business, its closest UK equivalent, but it's disappointing that what initially presents as exuberant should descend into the tiresomely posy and juvenile. 21st century Hollywood may be the best place for this pair. But heaven help the rest of us.

Gangsta opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

From the archive: "Eden"

As was noted circa 2011’s Goodbye, First Love, Mia Hansen-Løve’s off-screen affiliation with Olivier Assayas has only strengthened the profound yet delicately worn humanism the writer-director demonstrated in 2009’s outstanding Father of My Children: she’s found not just a mentor but a mirror, and a stirring model for her own endeavours. In Eden, Hansen-Løve mounts the kind of intimate social history Assayas has mastered: it views the 1990s Parisian house scene as every bit as much a protective bubble for the young and artistically minded as Assayas did the student communes in 2012’s Something in the Air.

On one level, Eden functions as an overview broadly comparable to our own 24 Hour Party People – the French picked up EDM (electronic dance music) later, and ran with it further come the new millennium – yet it’s sustained by Hansen-Løve’s ability to hone in on the beats by which her lightly fictionalised characters progress from innocence to experience. It shows us the dancefloor pulsing with loved-up revellers, but it also spies the one heartbroken girl pushing through the throng with her mascara streaming. Everyone has their reasons, and their rhythms.

Its centre is Paul (Félix de Givry), a would-be superstar DJ whose insatiable love of all things American manifests itself in both the name he attaches to his first club night (Cheers) and his fling with a visiting new-yorkaise (Greta Gerwig, remixing Frances Ha); he remains blind, for the best part of his twenties, to the affection retained for him closer to home by best friend Louise (Pauline Etienne).

Yet the camera – and the narrative – keeps drifting off in pursuit of alternative perspectives. Hansen-Løve senses the frustration of a scene elder (talismanic roue Vincent Macaigne) who’s shown his chums Showgirls three times without, in his eyes, anyone appreciating its vision of American vulgarity; a similar emotion is noted on the face of a bit-part waiter when these party kids enter his bar after hours to bombard him with orders.

Much of Eden is, in this way, buoyantly upbeat, even comic: on the fringes of this scene, we keep running into two sheepish types named Thomas and Guy-Manu, who only seem confident when dropping their latest tune – you’ll know them as Daft Punk, and Eden is the film that, in its roundabout way, explains both why the pair took to wearing helmets in public, and how a tune as revivifying as “Get Lucky” gestated. (Macaigne’s character is sent to interview Nile Rodgers at one point, which is a clue.)

Yet Hansen-Løve never backs away from playing the trickier, more affecting notes. Even when the film relocates to Chicago – so Paul can court producers into handing over fresh tracks – we’re aware this leaves one of the protagonist’s pals back home, fighting a losing battle with depression. Escapist nocturnal highs only last so long; reality – sometimes harsh, often banal, once or twice tragic – always returns to seize the day.

As its A-side/B-side intertitles (“Paradise Garage”/”Lost in Music”) hint, this is to some degree a familiar story, one in which youthful passion and idealism come to be compromised by business pressures, hangers-on and other exigencies of the adult world. Yet Hansen-Løve never stresses this overriding structure, instead riding the waves of mood.

In an interview, Paul describes his favourite music as existing “somewhere between euphoria and melancholia”, and much of Eden is suspended between these two poles: on one side, the heightened BPM of the soundtrack, a lovingly curated mix CD; on the other, the more ruminative time scheme of Paul’s early adult life. Hansen-Løve moves us in both senses of the word: she’s like a DJ spinning Ten City’s “That’s the Way Love Is”, and trying to pinpoint the sweet spots in that bittersweet house classic where chorus meets comedown.

In Eden’s opening scene, the teenage Paul breaks away from the crowd returning from a rural all-nighter to sit alone in reflection under a tree in an atmospherically foggy field. There is, indeed, something in the air here: at dawn, he vows out loud to record everything he’s seen and heard over the course of this formative evening. Few recent films have so generously and magnificently depicted the ways in which we come to fill the silence.

(MovieMail, July 2015)

Eden screens on Channel 4 tomorrow night at 12.15am.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

From the archive: "Goosebumps"

R.L. Stine's horror-themed children's books have been such bestsellers these past decades that a movie version was perhaps inevitable; the problem, one assumes, would have been deciding which of these standalone texts to adapt. Sony's new Goosebumps plumps for the postmodern route, mashing up a dozen or so of the books' monsters, but making Stine himself - rather than spooks, zombies or haunted houses - its organising principle: a not uninspired idea, given a broadly functional treatment by director Rob Letterman (Monsters vs. Aliens) and his small committee of screenwriters. So it is we find hunky teen hero Zack (Dylan Minnette, destined to play the young Captain America at some point) moving to Everytown, USA with his single mom (Amy Ryan, forever underused) and, in his pursuit of the girl next door, coming into near-immediate conflict with her father, a Mephistophelian-looking, black-clad recluse going under the name of Mr. Shivers, and incarnated by Jack Black. The two will have to work together, however, after a series of unfortunate events unleash physical representations of the monsters Shivers - by which the film means Stine - has previously contained within his bestselling fictions, starting with the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, and working through to the Werewolf of Fever Swamp. At which point Letterman hands the job of direction over to his effects team - for however physical these manifestations are meant to be, onscreen they are, almost without exception, virtual phenomena - and hopes that his audience won't be so old as to remember 1995's Jumanji, or the episode of The Simpsons that referenced Jumanji

Anybody who has will recognise not just the set-up (small town falls under threat from the kind of pixellated menagerie only possible in the digital era) but the character arcs (antagonism shading to grudging respect as the town is saved from danger), the jovial, insistently PG tone, even some of the jollifying music cues. Not that Goosebumps isn't fun. Black - as School of Rock proved - is always good value when arching an eyebrow and either smartmouthing or putting the wind up kids; when the runaround pauses, the camera will often alight on other funny faces, seizing a moment. Jillian Bell raises regular chuckles as Ryan's sister, while Veep's Timothy Simons livens up a throwaway part as the local lawman. There's a certain enjoyment to be derived from the sheer variety of ghouls plaguing this particular Main Street, too: at an early script meeting, it was clearly decided to throw in everything including the kitchen sink, and then to install an army of malevolent garden gnomes in that. It is, though, really no more than a predictable, carefully managed sort of fun, devoid of the true mischief a Sam Raimi or Joe Dante (whose fondly remembered TV series Eerie, Indiana would be another precursor) might have lent the project; you suspect those directors would have put a swift red pen through the entirely pat development that sees Stine literally having to confront his demons to move on. In the end, this Goosebumps emerges as the kind of bland corporate entertainment that typifies an age where cinemas are required to keep their lights on during the main feature for safety reasons. Nobody's going to be asking for their money back, but equally, you'll know what you're getting from the get-go; it'll do as a middling matinee, but at every stage of its conception and execution, it's been fine-tuned not to keep anybody awake at night, to haunt no dreams at all.

(MovieMail, February 2016)

Goosebumps is available on DVD through Sony; a sequel, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween, opens this Friday.

"They Shall Not Grow Old" (IndieWire 16/10/18)

They Shall Not Grow Old arrives as clinching proof of just how far Sir Peter Robert Jackson has travelled in three decades. Few would have predicted that the beardy yahoo mixing oatmeal and yoghurt to make alien vomit for 1987’s Bad Taste would wind up collaborating with London’s hallowed Imperial War Museum on a project to mark the centenary of World War One, but then history has a way of surprising us all. Now an Academy Award-bearing elder statesman, Jackson has been entrusted with the keys to the archive containing some of the so-called Great War’s most delicate and indelible images. Wearing its sincerity like an Armistice Day poppy, the resulting montage-film – premiering at the London Film Festival tonight ahead of future TV transmissions – does its utmost to honor the conflict’s fallen.

Jackson’s boldest choice has been to colorize some footage, and – for theatrical screenings – retrofit it with the 3D of his Hobbit sagas. Instantly, They Shall Not Grow Old risks reopening and expanding the ferocious debate that broke out around Ted Turner’s late-Eighties decision to colorize classic films, much as Marina Amaral’s colorized photos of WW2 concentration camps have recently sparked heated artworld discussions on morality and Photoshop. Jackson’s reasoning is that black-and-white was not how his subjects experienced life during wartime, and it’s true that his carefully chosen hues unlock a certain immediacy secreted in these images. Here lies a generation in the first flushes of ruddy-cheeked youth, which makes any eventual sacrifices at Passchendaele and Ypres more palpably tragic.

We are, however, eased in gently. The film opens in a newsreel ratio, with familiar images of marching Tommies accompanied by the reassuring whirr of a manually loaded projector. Recruitment posters (such as the iconic “Daddy, What Did You Do in The Great War?”) are the first artefacts that pop out at us in colour, a choice that feels far less contentious than working over dead men’s faces. And if rummaging in the archive has presented Jackson’s researchers with hours of usable footage, this has been assembled with a discipline those well-regimented Tommies would have recognised. We pass, as these men passed, through medicals and basic training, before shipping out to Europe; only around the halfway mark does Jackson make the decisive shift to full colorization.

Until then, the soundtrack does much of the heavy lifting. What Jackson gravitates towards in the survivors’ oral histories is any trace of irreverence: there’s much good-natured yet revealing griping about rations, uniform (“In the Army, it isn’t that your boots don’t fit your feet; they say your feet don’t fit the boots”) and billeting. (One visual surprise here: the sheer number of photos the Museum has accumulated of troops squatting bare-assed and perilous over makeshift latrines. There may be an official Keeper of the Grubby Butt Pics.) The testimony, at least, is cleaner than you’d expect from those obliged to kill for King and country, but it’s the language that most connects these images to 1918, dotted with phenomena (“plum duff”, “hookworm”) we’ve since evolved beyond.

While some recall their service with boyish pep, inevitably the shadow of death comes to loom large. It’s crucial that the transition to full color only comes once we’re at the front, with green and pleasant England behind us, and that those colors should be so mournfully muted: the soldiers’ khaki, the indistinct browns of much-trodden ground, the sickly sepia-yellow of mustard gas. We’re not spared the sight of life-drained bodies lying at agonised angles over barbed wire, though Jackson the sometime gorehound is also aware of the shocking notes human crimson can add to an image palette. (There’s even something a touch William Castle-like about one insert showing the Technicolor rot of a gangrenous foot: instructional, yes, but not what you’d want looming out at you in 3D.)

If the project supports any specific colorization argument, it’s that the process may be better off detailing the lifeless than it is the living. Whenever the image lingers on the latter, faces start to appear oddly zombie-like (made-up?), caught between no-man’s-land and the uncanny valleys of Jackson’s dubiously digitised Tintin adaptation, neither as dead as we know them to be, nor quite as alive as the filmmaker wants them. (The consolation of black-and-white imagery: it states, definitively, that this is a thing of the past.) Certain piquant effects would presumably be as evident in monochrome as they are in Jacksoncolor. Soldiers are seen playing to camera, testing their visibility and this new technology; their hard-won, uncertain smiles reveal British dentistry, ever-embattled, to have incurred several further hits.

Some may also cavil at the presumptions that mark They Shall Not Grow Old as the work of a born fabulist rather than a historian or journalist. Trench scenes have been remixed to lend them an atmosphere – a life – absent from more conventionally framed documentary, playing out to a Dolbyfied rumble of shells, while its previously silent subjects are given rhubarbing voice. A sequence of cuts between troop close-ups and bodies on the ground generates a powerful emotional effect, but also implies causal links – that this man died like this – which cannot be verified. What the man who filmed Helm’s Deep is ultimately compelled by is this conflict’s unprecedented, oft-horrific spectacle, hoping that humanity never again becomes so entrenched in its thinking and movements.

Perhaps that makes this conflict more vivid, rather than deepening our understanding: there’s scant socio-political context, little sense of why these men were fighting. Yet They Shall Not Grow Old succeeds in prising open a closed-off historical moment, carrying its traces beyond war buffs towards youngsters who might only know Franz Ferdinand as an art-rock band, and who might believe grainy monochrome images taken on a distant shore several lifetimes ago bear no meaning to their lives. At the very least, Jackson will have smuggled what were previously museum pieces onto screens across the world at a time when that world might learn something from them. By liberating this footage, and holding it up to 21st century light, his project renders all that was old joltingly, often powerfully new again.

Rating: B

They Shall Not Grow Old will screen in selected cinemas tomorrow and Sunday, and on the BBC next month.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of October 5-7, 2018:

 (new) Venom (15) [above]
2 (new) Johnny English Strikes Again (PG)
3 (new) A Star is Born (15) ***
4 (2) The House with the Clock in its Walls (12A)
5 (1) Night School (12A)
6 (3) A Simple Favour (15)
7 (new) Aida - Met Opera (n/c)
8 (4) Crazy Rich Asians (12A) **
9 (5) The Nun (15)
10 (7) The Wife (15) ****


My top five: 
1. Bad Times at the El Royale

2. Blindspotting
3. The Wife
4. Kler/Clergy
5. A Star is Born

Top Ten DVD sales: 

(1) Solo: A Star Wars Story (12) ***
2 (2) Deadpool 2 (15) **
3 (4) The Greatest Showman (PG)
4 (3) Avengers: Infinity War (12) ***
5 (6) Coco (PG) ***
6 (new) Show Dogs (PG) *
7 (new) Bodyguard (15)
8 (8) Moana (PG) ****
9 (9) Peter Rabbit (PG)
10 (21) Hocus Pocus (PG)


My top five: 
1. Summer 1993

2. Custody
3. The Happy Prince
4. Solo: a Star Wars Story
5. Apostasy

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Die Hard (Saturday, C4, 11.45pm)
2. Eden (Friday, C4, 12.15am)
3. Selma (Sunday, BBC2, 11.15pm)
4. Antz (Sunday, C4, 1.30pm)
5. The Guard (Tuesday, C4, 1.20am)

"Kler/Clergy" (Guardian 12/10/18)

Kler/Clergy ***
Dir: Wojciech Smarzowski. With: Arkadiusz Jakubik, Robert Wieckiewicz, Jacek Braciak, Joanna Kulig. 133 mins. Cert: 18

Source of understandable huffing among Polish conservatives, this stark and steely-eyed drama sets out its anti-clerical stall when three Catholic priests’ marathon drinking session is interrupted by news one of their parishioners requires the last rites, duly slurred through. A few degrees lighter – visually, tonally – and it might have reached us under the title Bad Padres. The multitude of sins writer-director Wojciech Smarzowski enumerates spans confession-box dozing, illegal surveillance, and liberal borrowing from the collection plate – and that’s before he perhaps inevitably broaches some ambiguous business with altar boys in the sacristy. Suffice to say, Smarzowski isn’t exactly preaching to the converted, rather mobilising that audience who suspect organised religion may be as organised crime, a Cosa Nostra in cassocks.

Presumably one reason for the hubbub back home is that this line of attack is being pushed not in some scrappy indie, but a handsome, multiplex-bound production boasting local all-stars: the most hireable priest – chief weakness: booze – is embodied by the excellent Robert Wieckiewicz, who played national hero Lech Walesa in Andrzej Wajda’s 2013 biopic. (His pregnant wife is played by Joanna Kulig, removed of her Cold War glamour.) After that riproaring opening, Smarzowski begins to chart the priests’ daily transgressions with a seriousness that subtly, skilfully shifts our perceptions of his apparently damnable protagonists. After half an hour, they start to look less like blundering caricatures than individuals at the mercy of a system keener to cover up than prevent abuses that are in many ways cyclical.

At times, it can feel as if the writer-director has taken on more than one film can satisfactorily chew. The deviation and interweaving of the three priestly strands proves quietly inspired – the network of corruption sustaining 1997’s L.A. Confidential may have been an unlikely but valuable influence – but the film still clocks in at an ungainly two-plus hours, despite a ruthless editing strategy that pares scenes to the bone. Yet if Smarzowski can’t quite achieve the straightahead rhetorical force of Pablo Larrain’s The Club, he gets close – particularly in the closing stretch – while the haunting central performances provide their own, altogether grim survey of the Polish church: here are sad, lonely, damaged men, clinging to their dog collars even as circumstances transform them into vices around their necks. Say a prayer for the Vatican PRs having to spin this one. 

Kler/Clergy is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

"MFKZ" (Guardian 12/10/18)

Dirs: Shojiro Nishimi, Guillaume Renard. Animation with the voices of: Kenn Michael, Michael Chiklis, Dascha Polanco, Giancarlo Esposito. 94 mins. Cert: 15

The title of this exhaustingly grimy and chaotic collaboration between French and Japanese animators is both a blunt contraction of the Oedipal expletive and a statement of attitudinal intent. No time for anything so wussy as vowels: writer/co-director Guillaume “Run” Renard instead whips his own graphic novel’s highlights into a frenetic postmodern melange that sends pizza delivery boy Angelino (voiced, in this English redub, by Kenn Michael) scooting through diversely appropriated cultures. Any film encompassing Nazi-punching lucha libre wrestlers and top-secret moonbases should by rights be huge fun, but even Renard finds himself conceding “What the F*** is Going On?” in a midfilm graphic; enjoyment will depend on a tolerance for that randomness teenagers apparently find hilarious.

By far the most impressive aspect is its density of vision: every corner of every frame has been worked over in some way. Renard’s Dark Meat City – a teeming reimagining of latter-day L.A., spawned of many hours sat before ‘hood movies, Grand Theft Auto and harder-core rap promos – is a mesh of interconnecting urban legends, overlaid with armies of human and insectoid cockroaches, then topped with ziggurats of trash and advertising space. If you’re looking for world building, you’re come to the right place. Yet its principal architects prove keener to flytip this secondhand imagery than they are to sort through it. There’s so much of everything – including a last-reel nuclear strike, intended to level matters up – that MFKZ threatens to mean nothing very much.

Pause to analyse the overload of visual information for even a moment, however, and some of what’s being dumped before us starts to look suspect indeed. At least one eyebrow might be raised at Renard’s effusively enthusiastic portrayal of a violent crime-ridden ghetto populated by gun-toting hulks and pneumatic babes; even Angelino’s bulbous, berry-round head appears dangerously close to the kind of racist caricature stamped on the front of 1930s boot blacks. (In this context, the city’s name sounds doubly icky.) It’s hitting cinemas for one night only, which may be all a splurge like this deserves – but don’t discount it from becoming a repository of retina-grabbing background visuals for questionably vogueish club nights.

MFKZ played in selected cinemas on Thursday night. 

The fame: "A Star is Born"

In times of trouble, turn to the tried and tested. Hollywood's glitziest fourth-quarter diversion A Star is Born has, yes, been filmed thrice before under the same title (in 1937, 1954 and 1976), but its underlying story template has also been channelled by Bollywood (the Aashiqui series), the Human League ("Don't You Want Me?") and, most recently, by La La Land, the Technicolor hit of two years ago that may have ensured this latest, long-gestating iteration finally saw the green light. (Among the stars most recently linked with this version: Clint Eastwood and Beyoncé, and there may not be enough string in the universe to string-theory that film into the imagination.) That very straightforward narrative, a matter of two intersecting arcs, sets out some arcane - and debatable - law of celebrity gravity, insisting that for one star to be born (here, Lady Gaga's waitress-turned-pop-sensation Ally), another (Bradley Cooper's grizzled alt-rocker Jackson "Jack" Maine) must either make room or fade away. There may be some significance in the fact this Star opens at a moment when the industry has haphazardly started to reorganise itself: one of Jack Maine's live favourites features the plaintive line "Maybe it's time we let the old ways die". Yet this is also the first Star to be directed by the actor playing the old white guy on the slide, which shifts other emphases - not least the character of Maine himself, presented here not as some unforgivably boorish lush, but a buff, brooding, attractively damaged addict. This text remains a looking glass in which Hollywood can take a long, soft look at itself and its processes, a glam session of stocktaking we're invited to sit in on.

So what's in it for us? A fair bit, as it turns out, and more than most were expecting when the project was first announced. For starters, it has a romance by which the film can override the self-regard in its premise. Cooper and Gaga are not an obvious pair, especially in these characterisations; one of the movie's background implausibilities is that it imagines a world where Eddie Vedder might hook up - musically, romantically - with Sia (or Gaga herself). Yet they have chemistry, and work very hard in the early scenes to persuade us Ally and Jackson might have a shot at something greater and more lasting than that. These two place a bet together, and find themselves on some winning streak before things go south; they're gamblers who cannot believe their luck, which may be as good a definition as any of those who work in the entertainment industry. As a director, Cooper has a sure feel for the live music scene that we're told has rejuvenated the once-dying music business. Time and again, his Steadicam peers over the shoulders of the actors as they walk out on an actual festival stage, registering the surprise and excited screams of unpaid extras who may have feared they were in for an unexpected guest slot from The Lumineers. In these scenes, the bass is mixed so loud you can feel it doing a number on your internal organs: it's as good as being there, as they say, but the effect also helps us make narrative sense of Jackson's hearing loss, and to spot his dwindling musical powers, his inability to rock a room as he once did. (Subtext of Star 2018: how the traditional, rootsy, white-collar rock long plied by men has of late been comprehensively eclipsed by more flexible young women.)

The film is generally sophisticated in its use of these songs to propel the narrative and generate emotion; even the arrangement and production of individual numbers - whether stripped down or Autotuned up - seem to speak to the characters' state-of-mind at any given moment. (Universal did well to get the Mamma Mia! sequel out before this, lest their film look any more like clunked-together panto.) Still, there are times when that music has to do a lot of heavy lifting. This is the shortest of the colour Stars - 134 minutes, so as to meet the demands of the modern multiplex - and certain prosaic details have had to be omitted or compressed so as to let the songs breathe. The precise location of Ally's crowded (halfway?) house has already become an Internet talking point, but her rise and Jackson's contingent fall feel unusually rapid (predetermined, maybe), and our heroine's make-or-break decision to shift from intimate, self-penned songs to the kind of slamming floorfillers that get to open Saturday Night Live isn't in any way explored: she sets out in this direction simply because that's what her arc demands. I've never been convinced that this narrative is particularly profound - or at least not as profound for us as it might seem to the people who keep revisiting this material: that underlying template strikes me as something like a Stanislavsky textbook, a relic of the Golden Age of cinema that movie people keep going back to because they believe it contains the secrets of the universe, rather than simply a fairly extreme summation (birth-fame-death) of their day job.

If handled correctly, however, it can yield a very absorbing entertainment. Any film that finds room for a line such as "You sold dad's ranch and turned it into a fucking windfarm!" is never going to lack for an element of melodramatic camp, but Cooper the director generally approaches those twin arcs with a no-nonsense, Eastwood-like sincerity (there's no further windfarm activity), while investing individual scenes with the on-the-hoof freshness and textures of his Silver Linings Playbook director David O. Russell. And none of the above reservations really seem to matter whenever Gaga steps back into the limelight Cooper casts to belt out one version or another of "Shallow", the knowingly titled belter by which Star 2018 hopes to convince us there is more to it than first meets the eye and ear. The irony is that, as a 32-year-old who's spent the best part of the last decade towards the top of her profession, Ms. Gaga may feel that her own musical star has been eclipsed in recent times by, let's say, Selena Gomez, Taylor Swift, Dua Lipa or anybody else who's collaborated with Marshmello (whoever he is). If so, then she's picked the right time and the right project to launch a crossover career as a movie star: she'll likely wind up the biggest benefactor from a film that - right through to Ally's closing rendition of a ballad that sounded, to these tired old Maine-ish ears, actionably close to R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly" - forever prioritises the truth inherent in performance over and above all others. She will almost certainly appear on awards-ceremony stages over the long months ahead. Let's hope that, unlike poor Ally, she can get on and off without anybody showing her up.

A Star is Born is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

On DVD: "The Happy Prince"

If I remember correctly, Brian Gilbert's very handsome, BBC-backed 1997 biopic of Oscar Wilde - the one with Stephen Fry in the lead role - drew a discreet veil over the writer and wit's final years in exile, preferring instead to enshrine Wilde in his tragic, martyred prime. Twenty years on, and hopefully we're all a little more grown-up around the idea of how a gay man might choose to spend his days and nights: Wilde was one of 20,000 men granted a posthumous pardon by the British Government in 2017 for offences that no longer exist in law, and which should never have been offences in the first place. Rupert Everett, who writes, directs and stars in The Happy Prince, has no such qualms about diving into the gutter in which Oscar found himself in later life, perhaps because - at this stage of his zigzagging, pinballing acting career - he too has nothing much left to lose. The thesis of Everett's film - which joins Wilde in a state of impoverished dishevelment amid the cabarets of late 19th century Europe, where he sought sanctuary after serving his prison sentence - is that right until the last, there was life in this old dog, as well as a desire to make peace with his demons.

So: where Gilbert's Wilde took the classical, Great Man of History line, Everett's unruly younger sibling concerns itself with a notable storyteller in search of a worthy ending for his own tale. Yet while it honours Wilde's spell in exile, The Happy Prince is itself having to make peace with its subject's past, or at least with what the movies have already told us. Clearly, Everett doesn't want to retread that ground Gilbert and Fry so amply covered, but his film's unusual shape suggests he must have had to sit impatiently through a number of production meetings where executives urged him to get some of that history in nevertheless. Everett's solution involves adopting a more than faintly Proustian structure whereby a line of dialogue will cue a flashback or cutaway to action unfolding simultaneously elsewhere within Wilde's circumscribed universe. The result is a rogue's gallery of odd, sometimes free-floating scenes that, taken collectively, do somehow paint a picture of a life lived in limbo. Old friends - friends of Oscar, friends of Rupert - come and go: Anna Chancellor as a society matron, Colin Firth as Wilde's loyal confidant Reggie Turner, Béatrice Dalle in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo as a cafe proprietor. When Emily Watson pops up over the Channel in a couple of scenes as Wilde's wife Constance, the expectation is that there will eventually be some kind of reunion, but the film never heads in this direction.

There may, I think, be something truthful in this approach. We mean for our lives to have unity and purpose, but we drift out of others' lives as they drift out of ours; we strive for meaning, and often wind up with no more than handfuls of madeleines and missed opportunities. The trick to living - for Wilde, for Everett, perhaps for you and I - is how we come to terms with that fact. Holding it all together is Everett himself, sporting latex jowls that bring him physically closer to where Fry signed off. Impossible to imagine Everett the director considered any other performer for the part: he tears through each scene, scattering epithets in English and French, bellowing at the heavens, and seducing the serving staff; it's fun to behold, but not subtle, and you sense Wilde's humility and gentle grace getting rather crushed beneath the wheels of a galumphing star vehicle. As a film, The Happy Prince is as eccentric and cockeyed as every other credit on its prime mover's CV, but it grabs a certain poetry in passing, and - thanks to Irish cinematographer John Conroy - a muted, faded beauty commensurate with its subject and star. Does it finally come up with an epitaph worthy of Wilde? Not exactly: its incoherence is such that this is one of the rare recent British period dramas where you'd advise everyone to only drink more tea, rather than soaking up the fumes coming off the onset absinthe. But it sure is lively.

The Happy Prince is available on DVD through Lionsgate from Monday.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

At the LFF: "Shock Waves: Diary of My Mind"

Shock Waves: Diary of My Mind is another artefact plucked from the ever-expanding borderland between TV and cinema. It was shot on digital for a Swiss true crime series by Ursula Meier, whose fine track record (2008's Home, 2012's Sister) and expert marshalling of a superior cast has landed it a surely unforeseen theatrical outing during this year's London Film Festival. This episode places the shock in the series' title upfront: it's the story of a disturbed teenager (played here by Meier's acteur fétiche Kacey Mottet-Klein) who, on a nondescript Friday in 2009, shot both his parents dead after posting a rambling text confessing his crime to a literature teacher (Fanny Ardant) who'd set her class a diary-writing assignment. The bulk of Meier's film unfolds after the boy has been taken into custody and the diary has landed on the desk of a woman already struggling to deal with both guilty thoughts that she may have in some way inspired this act, and the culpability the local authorities - led by short-fused prosecutor Jean-Philippe Écoffey - come to confer upon her.

What follows is a reconstruction in the conventional sense of the term, using lines from the killer's text to describe the run-up to the killings, and to try and comprehend why such a senseless crime took place; yet Meier's radical empathy - a compassion seemingly beyond the paygrade of those who investigated first time round - extends to an attempt to enter the boy's shattered headspace (laying his words over close-ups of uncomprehending faces) and understand the lonely teacher's need to stay close to someone most of us would possibly distance ourselves from after a certain point. It remains pretty exacting viewing - even at 70 minutes, you'd need a fair bit of Toblerone to get through it without ad breaks, and it winds towards an especially painful scene of self-harm - but the approach does get it under your skin, and the closing scenes are unnervingly strong. In its fierce terseness, this Diary cannot help but recall another: Meier's film has the look of a 21st century Bresson fable, and if that director would probably have forsworn Ardant's crumpled glamour (though she's not untouching in her solitude), you sense he'd be at least as fascinated as Meier with Mottet-Klein, roughly hewn yet ever-expressive, credibly dangerous to know.

Shock Waves: Diary of My Mind screens on Fri 12 (ICA, 6.15pm) and Sun 14 (Rich Mix, 1pm). 

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

At the LFF: "Evelyn"

Orlando von Einsiedel is the British filmmaker who was Oscar nominated for his 2014 documentary Virunga, on the ferocious battle raging between poachers and rangers within a Congolese national park; he went on to win last year's Best Documentary Short prize for The White Helmets, his study of the heroic Syrian medics. Von Einsiedel's new doc Evelyn marks both a homecoming, and perhaps an attempt to work out exactly why he's spent the last decade throwing himself, seemingly without a second thought, into the middle of vicious armed conflict. It is, in short, a personal film, one that frequently finds von Einsiedel front and centre, often in or close to tears, as he outlines the contours of a walking trip his family undertook through the Scottish Highlands and the Peak District with the aim of coming to terms with the suicide of his younger brother Evelyn, a name barely spoken within his clan in the years since the tragedy. Evelyn was himself a keen walker, we learn, but he was also a schizophrenic who, after several unsuccessful attempts, took his own life in 2005, aged 22: his teenage self can be glimpsed during the opening credits, compiling a video diary that doubles as a whirlwind tour of the von Einsiedel's boho household. Thereafter, he becomes an informing absence, as we sense this one trip becoming a means of having all those conversations the filmmaker, his parents, and his siblings ducked having at the time - a chance to get everything out in the open. By a miracle of Mother Nature, the landscape (the rocky, bumpy, uneven ground, the skies that fall somewhere between stormy and melancholy) soon comes to mirror the emotional landscape.

A few caveats, and possibly trigger warnings, may be in order. When I say Evelyn is personal, it is deeply personal from its very first scene, which finds the filmmaker taking delayed delivery of his brother's suicide note. Had he made it about any family other than his own, von Einsiedel would almost certainly have been accused of morbid prying. As a film about a British family (albeit a family with Germanic heritage, hence its preponderance of weird and wonderful names), Evelyn also brushes against issues of class and privilege: we are forever aware that not every bereaved family has the resources to exorcise their traumas on a walking trip, get it filmed and then exhibited in cinemas. Yet any sense that this awayday was of greater benefit for them than it will be for us is very quickly overcome by the realisation von Einsiedel is actively diagnosing that emotional aloofness commonly seen in the British upper classes, and which may not be entirely healthy for anybody, the vulnerable most of all. (It is a bad case of that stiff upper lip the class system has sought to frame as unconditionally heroic.) The director himself, who presents among the more approachable scions of this softly spoken tribe, is described as "emotionally stunted" by sister Gwendolyn, although this looks increasingly like a facade maintained by a big brother who felt pressured into leading the way out of the dark. Something more needling becomes apparent in a stretch that witnesses dad Andreas - who'd remarried several years before Evelyn's death - stomping brusquely over Gwen's thoughts and feelings during the yomp through the Peak District. (I hesitate to say it, but we've seen variations on this behaviour in other fields recently. Catastrophic referendum result? No point analysing it, just roll up your sleeves and crack on with pushing it through.)

The fascination exerted by the film lies in watching a family being drawn out of their usual bubble; it stands as poignant proof of the wisdom that simply getting out of the house can liberate us from our grief. The walk brings the von Einsiedels into contact with fellow travellers, from different backgrounds, many of whom are mourning losses of their own. A conversation with an ice cream man serves as evidence that the director's reserve is beginning, at last, to melt; falling into step with Evelyn's skater chums allows the film to build a community of the bereaved, capable of sharing the burden such a crushing loss must represent. Thoughtful image and sound choices tap the emotion sitting close to the film's surface. Though there is the occasional drone shot, equated to the walkers' belief that Evelyn is now watching over them, we're generally only a step or two ahead of this party at the roadside, looking back as they've previously refused to do, and the walks are very sensitively miked, so that we can hear every last snuffle, murmured regret or declaration of love. It's a film that stresses the importance of talking by trying very hard to hear every word of what's being said - however difficult these words may be to hear, or to say. We are brought unusually close to the film's subjects, then - and if ever their discussions get too much, too painful, too tragic to consider, there are always those rolling hills behind them to consider, a reminder of what will be there long after the rest of us have disappeared. That closeness makes this family's grief, and their eventual breakthroughs more tangible, while bringing a personality previously content to hide behind the camera into far sharper focus. Von Einsiedel, more German than perhaps he realises, here emerges as a capital-R Romantic, setting out into nature to confront death head-on.

Evelyn screens on Thu 11 (Curzon Mayfair, 6.15pm), Fri 12 (NFT3, 6.20pm) and Sun 14 (BFI Studio, 6.15pm).  

Monday, 8 October 2018

Great expectations: "Private Life"

It took seven years for Debra Granik to follow up Winter's Bone with this summer's exceptional Leave No Trace; it's been a full eleven since Tamara Jenkins made her terrific second film The Savages (with Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a matchless sibling combo), and twenty since her very smart and enjoyable debut Slums of Beverly Hills earned her the tag - wanted or otherwise - of a female Woody Allen. Competition for the Elaine May Prize for Unjustly Underemployed Female Creative has seldom seemed so fierce. (The question lingers: how many half-assed film-sketches about nothing very much has the actual Woody Allen churned out in that time?) The good news is that Jenkins has found sanctuary with Netflix, broad-minded, deep-pocketed new home of the kind of film the American mainstream, and to some degree the indie sector, has turned its back on: films made by grown-ups about grown-ups for grown-ups, more interested in matters human than superhuman. It's just that the gestational problems that form Private Life's chief concern seem to tally exactly with Jenkins' struggles to bring a project to full fruition over the past decade.

After introducing us to Richard and Rachel (Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn), a couple of fortysomething New Yorkers exploring the diminishing options of having a child at this age, the film settles into a handily chaptered step-by-step guide to some of the procedures involved in both IVF treatment and adoption ("The Retrieval", "The Test"): how it works, where it goes awry (the scams, the failures, the continuous throwing of money at an itch that often can't be scratched), and how even the stuff that does work (the endless needles, the close gynaecological study) can seem invasive and painful. This, however, is but a route into Jenkins' eternal subject, namely intimacy, the inner workings of a relationship - always a fraught, potentially comical business, never more so than when biological desperation rears its head, as it does here. A wildcard presents itself in the form of the couple's niece Sadie (Kayli Carter, all but picking up where Natasha Lyonne left off in Slums), a would-be writer who's dropped out of college and has come to crash on Rich and Rach's floor. Might she, we wonder, provide the pair with a way forward from their conceptual cul-de-sac?

It is, then, another in that recent run of films and TV shows exploring unconventional models of parenting, picking up a conversation we haven't much had publicly. Jenkins' dialogue is, as ever, studded with sharp, harsh, amusing truths: upon noticing one potential donor has a BA in journalism and cinema studies, Rachel can be heard to murmur "No wonder she's selling her eggs: she can't get a job", while Sadie's response to her hosts' breakfast table is a youthful "How Instagrammable". Yet she also finds witty ways for her characters to channel their emotions: it's too good that the first action Richard's conservative sister-in-law Cynthia (Molly Shannon) has to perform upon learning of her daughter's surrogacy plans is carving the Thanksgiving turkey. She has, of course, called upon the services of performers unafraid to look silly yet capable of inspiring deep empathy. There may be no funnier image of male despair this year than the shot that finds Giamatti sitting glumly in a clinic's masturbatorium with his trousers round his ankles; Hahn, the fearless firecracker of modern American screen comedy (The Goods, TV's I Love Dick), goes further still in a scene that finds her cleaning the bathroom bottomless while waiting for an embryo to take hold - the cinema's most prominent instance of everyday nudity since Julianne Moore in Short Cuts - but she's also alert to every last delicate nuance in Jenkins' writing. (Spot the look Rachel gives Richard after he describes one potential surrogate as "cute".)

Some early responders have quibbled with the two-hour running time - a Netflixism born of the editorial freehand the platform affords its creatives - yet Private Life felt to me entirely right in this form: it reflects an arduous and haphazard process, and grants Jenkins extra time to chart those gradual hormonal shifts - within these bodies, and in the arrangement of these bodies - which distinguish this deeply human comedy from a frenetic baster-based farce such as, say, Ben Elton's Maybe Baby. On a basic level, it's no particular chore to spend more time around characters who strike the eye and ear as real and recognisable people with real and recognisable problems, and believe me, it's worth waiting for Jenkins' final image, which - though sourced from just about the most unpromising location imaginable (an Applebee's restaurant) - forms a perfect illustration of two concepts you may be forgiven for thinking were long dead in 2018: togetherness, and hope. At a moment when it sometimes seems as if the world could care less and less about lived experience - and especially lived experience as recounted by a woman - it is a too-rare pleasure to encounter a cinema that embraces it unconditionally. Let's not wait another decade for Jenkins' next dispatch.

Private Life is now showing in selected Curzon cinemas, and is available to stream via Netflix.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Her story: "The Wife"

The set-up of The Wife, taken from Meg Wolitzer's novel, suggests no more nor less than a middlebrow mother!. Introduced receiving the notification for his Nobel Prize, there is a literary sacred monster - Joseph Castleman, played by Jonathan Pryce as an extension of his Roth-like tyrant in 2014's Listen Up Philip - who apparently holds the world in his hands like one of his beloved walnuts, and with that the power to crush its contents. Absorbing some of that pressure, there is his other, almost certainly better half Joan (Glenn Close). Joan entered the Joseph Castleman universe as an object of lust, a gleaming blonde trophy to be won and displayed: flashbacks reveal how her bright literature student was recruited, with no little condescension, as a babysitter for Professor Joseph and his first wife, then as a replacement for said wife once the marriage hit the rocks. Since then, she's largely been resigned to her fate as a meekly smiling support act in public and full-time nurse in private, keeping hubby's unruly appetites in check, quietly forgiving him his lapses, and reminding him to take the pills that will get him through his next magnum opus. The pair set off on their Stockholm jaunt with this tried-and-tested routine, this unified front, in place; by the end of it, the balance of power in this relationship will have been completely overturned.

Such a synopsis may lead you to expect incendiary, revolutionary cinema - something closer to what mother! was, perhaps. In actuality, Björn Runge's adaptation builds in small, considered, generally persuasive increments. Its virtues are distinctly classical: Jane Anderson's screenplay uses the three-day weekend of the Nobel ceremony as three acts in which the status quo of this marriage is set out, tested, and finally changed forever by a number of forces. Joseph, for one, is caught paying more attention to his personal photographer (a twentysomething brunette with Delevingne brows) than he does to his son David (Max Irons), an aspirant scribe with a short story that awaits critiquing and a quietly felt need for paternal affirmation; Joan, meanwhile, is buttonholed by a journalist (Christian Slater) digging into the couple's background for possible use in relation to a forthcoming biography. Writers upon writers upon writers: every which way you look in this film, you risk being slapped round the face with a manuscript, an outsized ego, or an awards-worthy word choice. (No surprise critics have admired the film so: it is to our world what A Star is Born must be to those in showbusiness, savvy to the best and worst of us.)

Yet Anderson burrows inwards with writerly perception, taking us behind the scenes of the Nobel as she gets under the skin of this relationship, and Runge's direction doubles down on the interiority - because, it turns out, he had to double down on it. There's a reason why the film leans heavily on close-ups and medium shots, and why Joe and Joan Castleman are driven from hotel to function suite in cars whose windows are conspicuously misted up: a story set out by Wolitzer in Connecticut and Stockholm was apparently filmed in Glasgow, presumably for financing reasons. You'd never guess, however, and one of those close-ups may yet win Close the Oscar: a single, quite remarkable twenty-second hold on Joan's face, inserted during Joseph's acceptance speech, during which we witness this woman's quiet pride in her husband's achievements subsumed by a bubbling, lava-like ire she's had to keep down for the best part of three decades. Such tight scrutiny proves rather better for the leads than it does the supporting cast. Annie Starke, Close's real-life daughter, is very good as the younger Joan, thanklessly tamping down her own ambitions for the betterment of the so-called great man she falls for; it's a performance that explains the rage in Close's gaze, a return of something long repressed. Yet Irons is less responsive as David, as is the blustery Harry Lloyd as the younger Joseph - although there are reasons, uncovered late in the day, why Runge may have cast a thin slip of a thing in the part.

Still, none of this matters whenever the film is rearranging the occupants and plush furnishings of a Stockholm hotel suite into the basics of Bergmanian theatre: a husband and wife yanked unceremoniously out of their comfort zone, and forced to confront their own histories in a moment of transition, armed only with a combustible mixture of powder-dry affection and flinty frustrations. The film around these messy emotions can seem overly neat and tidy in places, inserting its flashbacks with tweezers and carefully acknowledging its narrative and visual symmetries; it's finally the polar opposite of the splurgy, expressionistic Aronofsky film, which may be why it's been so embraced by audiences, and why it may yet end up among this year's foremost prizewinners. Yet Runge - who broke through on British screens with the perfectly respectable ensemble drama Daybreak back in 2003, went AWOL thereafter, and may now deserve the gong for the year's most self-effacing job of direction - habitually selects the right takes and makes the right cuts to lend what is a generally well-made picture an unusual emotional amplitude and dynamism. A useful question to mull over on the walk back to the car park: just how much input did his own wife have?

The Wife is now playing in selected cinemas.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

From the archive: "Department Q: The Absent One"

2013's The Keeper of Lost Causes - another very solid item carried ashore on the Scandie crime wave, adapted from the first of author Jussi Adler-Olsen's Department Q books - introduced us to Carl Mørck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a grim-visaged, emotionally repressed detective reassigned to Copenhagen's dusty cold-case division after crossing his bosses once too often. Here was another maverick cop, for whom clearing up after his colleagues' mistakes might eventually provide some form of redemption; yet the series' second instalment The Absent One immediately challenges Mørck by recording a mistake of his own. At a party thrown to celebrate the successful relaunch of the Department, a typically cranky Mørck shoos away the attentions of a former detective, driven to desperation by the murder of his teenage son and daughter twenty years previously; next morning, the man is found dead in his bathtub, his wrists slashed, obliging our hero to take those pleas to reopen the case seriously. The subsequent investigation, pursuing the one lead that wasn't chased up two decades earlier (a tearful phone call to emergency services), will lead him to an elite prep school that can count several of the country's best and brightest among its alumni.

Adler-Olsen's MO, as translated in these films, involves a slight cheat - interpolating flashbacks and sidebars that privilege the viewer with information Mørck and his team haven't yet come across - yet it's no more than the average BBC4 Saturday night drama deals in: as have Wallander or The Bridge before it, The Absent One offers the reliable pleasure of watching a fuller picture slowly be pieced together. As in those shows, what's really being interrogated here is status of one kind or another. This case is a David-versus-Goliath matter, and one suspects most viewers will find it hard not to side with Department Q's basement dwellers - the maladroit Mørck, his put-upon Arab sidekick Assad (Fares Fares), plus the new secretary whom evidence suggests has been placed here by the author to draw the hero out of his shell - against the private school bullies who can accord to import zebras for their monthly hunt and lean on the press to conceal their crimes with anti-immigrant rhetoric. 

As an emergent franchise, these films have displayed no greater ambition than to deliver a good yarn to an established audience, but they've been nimbly adapted by Nikolaj Arcel (King's Game), and this instalment in particular features a superior selection of Danish acting talent, comparable to the starrier Poirots. There's choice villainy from Pilou Asbaek (A War) and David Dencik (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as privileged brothers who surely have blood on their well-manicured hands, and - while The Absent One doesn't deviate too greatly from contemporary crime drama's grim templates of female victimhood - Danica Curcic at least gets to try on different personae, from bag lady to shotgun-toting avenging angel, as the case's most vividly unravelling loose end. (The one genre reversal here comes amid the finale, as the leads are put in the position usually assigned to damsels in distress.) Elsewhere, the addition of a cat to the Department Q basement indicates the producers are keen to build and develop this team: they already have a real boon in Fares' quiet solidity as the Lewis to Mørck's Morse, subtly introducing all manner of post-racial notes and tensions, and while Mørck himself has become at least a little more open and empathetic by the end of part two, Lie Kaas continues his fine impersonation of a man who not only looks as though he knows something's rotten in the state of Denmark, but as if he can smell it, too. There will be more of these; for the time being, the Q still implies a certain quality.

(MovieMail, April 2016)

The Absent One screens on BBC2 tonight at 12.40am.

From the archive: "Mr. Holmes"

Pop culture has succumbed of late to what we might deem cumberbacchanalia: a revelling in sexy new versions of our foremost literary heroes. To the sainted Benedict’s savant Sherlock, Bill Condon’s period piece Mr. Holmes might serve as a mild form of rebuke. Here is the old, stately Holmes – less hip, more hip-replacement – positioned front and centre by an industry doing everything possible to satiate its rediscovered audience of matinee-going greyhairs; he’s played by Ian McKellen with the same twinkly-eyed, fruity-voiced wisdom he bestowed upon Gandalf the Great.

We join this Holmes in the year 1947, in seclusion on the South Coast – then, as now, retirement territory – where he keeps bees (studied as he once did human behaviour) and shrugs away the last vestiges of the image created for him in bestsellers written by one John Watson (glimpsed in passing). The idea, sourced from Mitch Cullin’s novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind”, is a clever one, immediately connecting protagonist with target audience – that, just as today’s whippersnappers might hold certain ill-informed ideas about pensioners, so too everyone on screen has misconceptions about the detective.

Firstly, that he lived at 221B Baker Street (when, in actuality, this Holmes moved across the street to avoid – or better study – the tourists); then, that he wears a deerstalker and smokes a pipe (where this one prefers a cigar). The connection’s strengthened when this Holmes potters off to a matinee showing of a film adaptation of one of Watson’s books, and sees his big-screen self – played, in an affectionate nod, by former Young Sherlock Holmes Nicholas Rowe – assemble the pieces of a plot our hero dismisses as “utter rubbish”.

Mr. Holmes’s own plot tends towards the meandering, shaped more than anything else by its subject’s wandering memory. Around this character study, we’re offered recollections of a recent trip to Japan to retrieve a royal jelly-like substance; these are interspersed with flashbacks to Holmes’s final case, a cherchez la femme affair initiated by a husband convinced his wife may have strayed.

That this case should turn on a tombstone serves notice of the themes of infirmity and mortality Condon and McKellen are turning over here (as, indeed, they were in 1998’s Gods and Monsters). Holmes’s relocation to the White Cliffs – his homeland’s natural endpoint – may well resonate with Silver Screen audiences who’ve felt marginalised in recent decades, as might the narrative insinuation that Sherlock is a man out of time in an era where such barbarities as Hiroshima (the crime that obliterates all clues, all traces) are permissible.

Much effort has been made to situate this Holmes in your nanna’s world, which proves a mixed blessing: staking out such cosy, literal heritage cinema territory leaves no room for those wistful flights of fancy taken by Billy Wilder’s similarly autumnal The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Yet the performers do just enough to keep everybody awake: McKellen is very touching as a Holmes who’s survived long enough to see clues and causality everywhere he goes, but increasingly lacks the faculties to interpret them as he once did.

He forms close, believable ties with Laura Linney as his flinty housekeeper – a sort-of real-world Mrs. Hudson, facing up to mounting financial pressure by rolling up her sleeves and working harder – and with young Milo Parker as her son and Sherlock’s eager protégé. There are nice bits, too, for Frances de la Tour (briefly initiating a Vicious revival as a flappy medium), Phil Davis (as a workaday copper) and John Sessions (as Mycroft). It does feel very much the work of old pros: steady, a little plodding, worth humouring.

(MovieMail, June 2015)

Mr. Holmes premieres on BBC2 tonight at 6.20pm.