Saturday 3 April 2010

Hard yards (ST 24/01/10)

A Prophet (18) 155 mins ***
Brothers (15) 104 mins **
The Boys Are Back (12A) 103 mins **

An alternative title for Jacques Audiard’s wildly acclaimed prison epic A Prophet might be An Education, though anyone expecting genteel period drama should look away now: its protagonist learns in the harshest and most brutal of fashions. The first time we see Malik (Tahar Rahim), an illiterate young Arab serving six years behind bars for an unspecified crime, he’s being relieved of his trainers by two fellow inmates. Mentorship of sorts arrives care of Corsican crime boss Luciani (Niels Arestrup), albeit at a price: Luciani’s seeking someone to bump off a Muslim prisoner preparing to testify against one of his own.

What follows is an extensive coaching session, in which Malik is schooled in everything from the intricacies of fellating his target to how to spring a razorblade from the deepest recesses of his mouth. (Again: sensitive viewers, be warned.) Malik exits the Muslim’s cell with bloodstained hands - and his future protection assured - but not before noting the books on his victim’s shelves. As the dead man himself phrased it, giving voice to the process before his throat is slashed: “The thing is to leave here a little smarter than you arrived”.

A sallow type, all bumfluff and bad sweaters, Rahim somehow gets us on side without being especially ingratiating. It’s Malik’s desire to make something better of himself that appeals to us (“You want me to carry on being your Arab?,” he spits at Luciani); he is, as per the title of a previous Audiard film, a self-made hero. Occasionally, Audiard will reduce the light on screen to a pinprick, replicating the perspective of an individual trapped inside his own head: it’s evident Malik needs to open a few mental doors - to literally brighten up - if he’s ever going to emerge from this gloom.

A Prophet’s physical force is undeniable: the blood spurts vividly, and its gunshots ring in your ears for days. Yet I sensed Audiard’s grip on this material - and my own involvement with it - slackening over the long haul. The drug deals and drive-bys Malik busies himself with on narratively convenient day releases seem faintly rote, as though the filmmaker felt the tensions simmering within the prison walls weren’t in themselves enough. It’s telling that Audiard’s co-writer here should be Abdel Raouf Dafri, whose recent Mesrine movies similarly overran, carried off and away on their anti-hero’s wave of carnage.

It’s regrettable, too, that Arestrup’s utterly compelling Luciani should disappear in this maelstrom. A Prophet’s smartest material contrasts Malik against this old lag, savvy enough to know that he can’t change and he’s not going anywhere. Meeting his lawyer, Luciani’s gaze drifts to the window, alighting upon the dead leaves in the gutter; while the kingpin’s eventual humiliation, rhymed with the stomping out of a cigarette, is the one scene of weight in the final hour. If Audiard had shifted his emphases even slightly, he might have really had something: an elegy to dwindling, diminished potency, rather than the celebration of the will to criminal power A Prophet actually becomes.

Released in 2005, Susanne Bier’s Brødre was an old-fashioned, grown-up melodrama that found loving mother Connie Nielsen (39 at time of filming) stunned when her peacekeeper hubby Ulrich Thomsen (41), believed killed in Afghanistan, returned home alive but psychologically scarred; a situation complicated further by her growing attraction to Thomsen’s younger sibling Nikolaj Lie Kaas (31). Now we have Jim Sheridan’s English-language remake Brothers, which offers Natalie Portman (28) as the wife, Tobey Maguire (34) as her Marine husband, and Jake Gyllenhaal (29) as the other brother - sexy recasting, if ever there was.

Sheridan, to be fair, is one of the few US-based filmmakers capable of matching Bier’s heart-on-sleeve sincerity, and his Irish background gives him a better grasp than most of the devastation extended conflict can wreak on families. Yet this version falls down on the relative inexperience of its leads, as people and performers: the disconnect already evident in Bier’s film between the husband’s grim fate overseas and his loved ones’ glossy skylarking back home seems here far less pointedly intentional. It’s an honourable effort to reproduce the original’s high-grade soap, but such melodrama either convinces in its entirety or not at all.

More awards bait in The Boys Are Back, a sunkissed weepie from Shine director Scott Hicks based on Simon Carr’s memoir. Clive Owen plays Joe, an English sportswriter who’s moved to Australia with his second wife Katy (Laura Fraser); when the latter suddenly dies of cancer - another of those incredibly clean terminal illness deaths the movies specialise in - Joe finds himself juggling work and kids with doubts about his fathering abilities.

Fortunately, the film trips over itself to make Joe’s life easier. Katy’s spirit doles out selectively-heard words of wisdom (“buy yourself a new car”); Joe has in-laws to fall back on; and Emma Booth has a rather obvious role as a can-do neighbour who cooks, cleans and nurtures. It pootles along amiably enough, but scarcely seems to merit its own exclamatory title - and Owen still doesn’t appear to have cracked this leading man business.

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