Sunday 4 April 2010

Heavyweight contender (ST 31/01/10)

Precious (15) 110 mins *****
Adoration (12A) 101 mins ***
Edge of Darkness (15) 117 mins **

Little about Precious looked promising. Director Lee Daniels’ previous credit was for a straight-to-DVD Stephen Dorff thriller. The performers? Mariah Carey, brash (read: insufferable) comedienne Mo’Nique and the unknown Gabourey Sidibe. Its full title, Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, suggests both a) the drab hand of the Oprah Book Club, and b) that the legal department didn’t get their ducks in a row before finalising the credits. And yet here we are, in a position where Precious is being positioned as a key text of the Obama era, this year’s Slumdog-like little-film-that-could.

The irony is you’d be hard-pushed to find a protagonist bigger than Claireece “Precious” Jones. An overweight, undereducated black teenager in 1980s Harlem, Precious (Sidibe) shares a hovel the shade artists usually reserve for engravings of hell with a verbally and physically abusive mother (Mo’Nique). She has herself mothered one child, and is expecting another, the offspring of her own absent father. As she plods through the trash-strewn streets of the projects, her thoughts, nevertheless, tend towards optimism of sorts: “I’m always looking up… looking up for a falling piano, or a desk, or sofa”.

The Slumdog comparison isn’t entirely inapt - both films follow young people in dire circumstances as they seek self-esteem through knowledge - but Precious proves more grounded than Danny Boyle’s flash and dash. In a show of absolute formal solidarity with its heroine, the film’s movements are raggedy, its rhythms awkward and circumscribed. There’s always a Claireece slumped in the background of movies like Dangerous Minds, but here a character who’d rarely be studied on screen as an individual is repositioned at the centre of her own universe, obliging everyone in her orbit to revolve around her for a change.

Daniels’ choices, in everything from casting to camerawork, aren’t always the expected ones, or the most considered, yet they’re astonishingly effective: even on a second viewing, I couldn’t spot some of the knockout blows coming. As the film cuts, wrenchingly, from one bleak revelation to Precious imagining herself posing for a fashion shoot, you instantly intuit the richness of this girl’s inner life, and the desperation of a mind scrambling to dress up more bad news. The climax, too, arrives entirely without signal, and elicits raw, devastating acting from Mo’Nique - a phrase I never thought I’d write - as the mother reveals the extent of her own miseducation.

What powers this scrappily magnificent film is instinct - gut feeling, you might say - and an unparalleled level of empathy towards a character who simply wouldn’t be given a chance anywhere else. Walking several miles of bumpy emotional terrain in its heroine’s supersized sneakers, Precious is uniquely sensitive to pain, but it’s a hopeful work, too, and defiant: like Sidibe’s heroine, it shouldn’t triumph, but it does, and no rational explanations can substitute for the experience of seeing it in a dark room with strangers and gasping, weeping and cheering for yourself. Some movies really do leave no child, nor viewers, behind.

Adoration, another of the director Atom Egoyan’s exercises in multiple perspectives, aims principally for the intellect, centring upon a school project spiralling rapidly out of control. Egged on by batty drama teacher Arsinée Khanjian, teenager Simon (Devon Bostick) fabricates a story about his absent parents: specifically his Canadian mother, asked by her Palestinian husband to smuggle explosives onto a flight bound for Tel Aviv - or so Simon says.

The consequences of this deception play out simultaneously in both the real world and Internet chatrooms, virtual echo chambers populated by all ages, colours and creeds: soundtracked by XTC’s none-more-sceptical “Dear God”, these online sequences offer a timely and passionate discussion of where we are in the Age of Terror. Other strands begin to fray, but Egoyan keeps making intelligent and provocative connections: if it doesn’t all tie up, at least you can’t accuse it of dumbing down.

I’m too young to remember the much-admired BBC miniseries Edge of Darkness, yet it can’t, surely, have been as dour and flatfooted as Martin Campbell’s new film version. After seeing his daughter killed on his doorstep, Mel Gibson’s Bostonian detective unearths a dime-a-dozen conspiracy involving nuclear powerbrokers - though he roughs up an activist, too, just to show he’s not going entirely pinko liberal on us. A few nicely ruminative scenes pit Gibson against Ray Winstone’s wry, ideologically flexible PI: the closest the film gets to the thick-ear pulp it aspires to be. The rest, alas, treads heavy in some very familiar footsteps.

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