Thursday 31 March 2022

Ready to rumble: "RRR: Rise Roar Revolt"

While the Western media were busy wringing their hands over an Oscars ceremony that proved as long, artless, depressing and ugly as most American films nowadays, the movies were moving on, as movies are wont to do. Opening inside the top three at the UK and US box office this past weekend - and at #1 internationally -
RRR: Rise Roar Revolt presents as by far the biggest of the Indian cinema's spring big-hitters, being the gifted Telugu imagemaker S.S. Rajamouli's follow-up to his spectacular Baahubali diptych, which achieved similar numbers in 2015 and 2017. Rajamouli doesn't need Western reference points - he has his own idiosyncratic tics and tricks - but you could say he's taken it upon himself to expand the reach and scope of the masala movie in much the way Steven Spielberg invented (and reinvented) the event movie in the course of the 1980s and 1990s. The two filmmakers' core tenets are mostly of a piece: clean, crisp narrative lines; well-organised, spatially coherent setpieces; goodies who are identifiably good; baddies who are hissably bad. RRR even reveals Rajamouli as a Spielberg-like student of popular history: he here does for India under the final days of colonial rule what Raiders of the Lost Ark did for a Europe and North Africa under Nazi occupation. As if to underline the parallel, Rajamouli casts Alison Doody - of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade fame - as among the more callous of his colonisers, an unsmiling devil woman who carries round her own spiked whip to slap down a people her fellow toffs are prone to calling "brown rubbish".

To address the spectacle first (because there is a lot of it): Rajamouli has engineered a team-up between two men - cinematic exaggerations of real-life figures in the fight for Indian independence - who begin on opposite sides of the fence. My esteemed friend and colleague Baradwaj Rangan has already written about the film's mythological antecedents, which become more apparent and more important as RRR barrels onwards; I was initially reminded of Curtis Hanson's film of L.A. Confidential. Raju (Ram Charan) would be the Russell Crowe figure in this scenario: a hardnut police officer working with the British forces, who in an extraordinary early brawl leaps into the sea of protestors gathering outside his Delhi garrison to haul in the one unfortunate his paymasters have singled out for punishment - a bar-setting brouhaha that gradually assumes the form of a thousand-man pile-on. Bheem (NTR Jr.), a villager who arrives in Delhi looking for the child we've already seen being snatched away by the Governor's wife (Doody), is introduced offering his body as live bait amid a tiger hunt; when the tiger slips its netting and roars in his face, he simply roars right back. These two stars align while swinging from a semi-collapsed bridge, attempting to rescue another child in the wake of a train derailment, but they don't speak a word; instead, they catch one another's eye and communicate at a distance via a series of hand gestures. It's a fairly rote action trope, one complementing the other: they're head and heart, muscle and brain, fire and water (the film's organising visual principle). But they're also characters who seem to be directing their own intensely choreographed setpieces. Whenever Rajamouli tosses everything up in the air, we sense - as Raju and Bheem seem to sense - where it will all land, and how it's going to impact them. Rarely has a blockbuster felt as predestined - in a good way! - as this.

Those are three of the best setpieces of the year, and we're barely half an hour into RRR. Rajamouli may be the pre-eminent filmmaker of a generation of Indian directors who think predominantly in terms of setpieces, knowing that if you get those right, the audience will likely go home happy (and, ever more crucially, come back for more). Those setpieces come along like buses here - or like waves of attack on any resistance you may personally feel around the notion of big, crowdpleasing cinema. A dance-off at a society function turns into a They Shoot Horses... -style endurance contest. Bheem is sent on a mad dash to purge a snake's deadly poison (for which we might also conceivably read the poison of colonialism) from Raju's veins. Just before the interval - sorry, inteRRRval, as the onscreen caption has it - there's a heist on Governor Ray Stevenson's mansion, during which Bheem looses a dozen caged and hungry tigers; the results, which will qualify among the wildest things you will witness inside a cinema this year, suggest what would have happened if someone had thought to mash up the closing scenes of If... with the original Jumanji. Nothing in RRR's second half can quite match that for pulse-quickening absurdity, although it nonetheless occasions a Gibsonian public flogging (Doody's whip) that turns into a song sequence, not to mention Bheem flinging a flaming motorcycle at the Governor, as if the pair of them were trapped not in pre-Partition India, but an early Meatloaf video. Every time you think RRR has gone OTT for good, it goes OTT once more: Rajamouli slaps a smile on our faces early on, and then assures us we really haven't seen anything yet.

You may have so much fun watching RRR that you overlook its flaws and limitations. Better placed observers than me (Meenakshi Shedde, here) have spotted Rajamouli's rather scrambled, bet-hedging politics; remember even Spielberg gave us the business with Short Round and the monkey brains. And RRR is such a throwback that it thinks nothing of being exclusively, even exhaustingly bromantic. As I feared in my Gangubai Kathiawadi review, guest star Alia Bhatt is wasted in the role of Raju's sweetheart, in the way sweethearts in Movies About Men often are: looking wistfully pretty while reading letters home. Rajamouli's visibly more engaged with Ajay Devgn as the leader of a rebel army, his terse credo "load, aim, shoot" chiming with that of a director rolling up his sleeves to get stuck into the action; generally, though, the attempts to make this a pan-Indian production feel cursory and tacked-on. And don't get me started on the bulk of the palefaced performers, who refuse to speak English in any recognisable way. Is there an unfinishing school on the outskirts of Delhi, where Home Counties am-drammers are elocutionally deprogrammed before setting out to play colonising ne'er-do-wells? (The overdubbing can't help.) For me, RRR wasn't as big a knockout as Baahubali: those films had poetry, arching up towards the heavens, where this is lively, pulpy, grounded prose, rewriting history for a mass audience. All the same, you can absolutely see why it's caught and stimulated the collective imagination so: it is the sort of fun time at the movies that American event movies, jaded, neurotic and/or self-involved as they now are, have largely forgotten to be. Rajamouli's elemental cinema represents a return to first blockbuster principles, reminding us of the larger-than-life pleasures these films once gave, and those they could still give.

RRR is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Tuesday 29 March 2022

Even flow: "River"

The Australian filmmaker Jennifer Peedom is carving out a very particular niche for herself. 2017's
Mountain, an ode to the world's tallest peaks narrated by the eminently craggy Willem Dafoe, could hardly have been anything other than spectacular. Now Peedom follows it with the almost self-explanatory River, another film-symphony that reunites the same creative team: a prologue shows the returning Dafoe heading into the ADR suite with words from the novelist Robert Macfarlane and selected members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. The ACO's score will actually prove to be one of River's strengths, as sombre and stirring as the great Danube. Elsewhere, renewed exposure only reveals Peedom's MO as a mix of the extremely vivid and the naggingly vague: what we're watching here is the Malickisation of the theatrical nature doc. To take the more vivid material first, Peedom has a gift for bending the screen into abstract shapes that take some (pleasurable) figuring out. Rivulets are observed breaking away from a waterway's main channels in complex, criss-crossing patterns, like the stitches of a jumper, or veins overlapping beneath the skin; the camera follows the twists and turns of a stream as it runs off and down a sheer cliff face. It's soon apparent this is the kind of production that's only become possible thanks to the evolution of drone technology. Some of the the starkest shots here are simple, static overviews, of canoeists tumbling over falls or lonely boatmen going about their daily business; of fields in various states of irrigation, and those golf courses that have popped up, altogether incongruously, amid the vast sands of the desert.

River gives good gawp, on the whole: every shot in these 76 minutes is a money shot, carefully collated by Peedom and editor Simon Njoo to point up the great spectacle of rivers. Or, indeed, any large body of water: the most surreal, Koyaanisqatsi-like image is of thousands of be-lilo-ed humans squeezed into a leisure park's overflowing wave pool. (There may be an implied rhyme between that image and a later one of plastic skimmed off the ocean's surface.) Yet what the film gains in scope, it often loses in precision: we get no indication of that waterpark's location, and though Peedom has dredged up some jawdropping footage of towns being flooded, there's equally no indication of this footage's source. A certain one-worldism is at play, which rather erases the differences in temperament between, say, the Ouse and the Ganges. The scientific specificity of the Attenborough school has been swept downriver, replaced by something loftier and more contentious. That's most obvious from Dafoe's narration, where every one of Macfarlane's choicer phrases ("lush rich silt", "upstream greed, downstream need") soon finds itself overwritten by something wispily grandiose. Are rivers really the basis of all human dreams? Does a river's "death" in the ocean begin its "resurrection"? (Are rivers religious?) The film has valid points to float about dams and all that damn plastic, but too much of River is allowed to wash over us like adland imagery and rhetoric. It dazzles at some of its turns, but it can't tell us anything we don't already know from decades of more prosaic eco-docs: that rivers are useful and nice to look at, that we should do whatever we can to stop factories, waste companies and drunk-at-the-wheel governments from dumping their shit in them.

River is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to rent via Prime Video, the BFI Player and Dogwoof on Demand.

Monday 28 March 2022

What's the buzz?: "Hive"

Blerta Basholli's
Hive won three international prizes at last year's Sundance; either the air or the competition must have been pretty thin up there. It has a compelling enough idea, which is to do a fiction based on fact about those women whose husbands went missing during the Kosovan conflict, and who've since made ends meet and shored up asymmetrical households. But Basholli has picked the wrong (or, at least, a perilously narrow) line of focus in Fahrije (Yllka Gashi), a mother-of-two who spends her days tending her AWOL husband's beehives, and generally appearing too depressed and low-energy to spark a movie into any kind of life. (One immediate problem: she'll likely remind cinephiles of Hatidze, the unforgettably go-getting beekeeper of the 2019 doc Honeyland, filmed not a million miles away.) The narrative thrust is Fahrije's effort to re-empower herself by forming a collective to sell homemade ajvar (a local delicacy, fashioned from peppers and eggplant) to local supermarkets; this in the face of the town's menfolk, who'd rather these women sit on their hands and wait for their husbands to return. Somewhere in the distance hovers the ghost of the Lysistrata: a vision of community divided along gender lines.

But Basholli's vision has no particular weight, because there's never any substantial exploration of why the men of this encampment think and behave like this. Instead, they're presented as stock blackhats from The Patriarchy, trashing the collective's HQ and calling the women whores because that's what bad men do in artfilms that need easy villains for their heroines to overcome. Case in point: the greengrocer who gets turned down for a coffee in the opening ten minutes and then returns to assault Fahrije in the last half-hour. He's never a character, more a tool deployed to make female viewers even more paranoid about the opposite sex than they might already be. The red peppers involved in the production of ajvar lend it passing colour, but it's predominantly drab naturalism, all flat close-ups of glum faces. Some of the supporting turns are wobbly at best, and while Gashi sneaks in flashes of quiet pride around her offspring and the business she builds up, the default setting for this role is terse, unhappy and uncommunicative. You do come away with a sense of a broken land, granted, but all that honey in the corner of the film's eye goes to waste: it's a movie that could sorely do with a little sweetening here and there.

Hive is now showing in selected cinemas, and will be available to rent from April 18.

Sunday 27 March 2022

On demand: "Palm Springs"

Max Barbakow's
 Palm Springs was an artefact of the Before Times - a premiere at Sundance 2020 - which came to be fervently embraced during the first wave of the Covid pandemic, for multiple reasons. For starters, it's the kind of light-hearted escapism people will always gravitate towards when the real world gets too much, as it has of late. Much of it takes place at the type of event (a resort wedding) that was deemed off-limits through much of 2020-21. And its narrative opens up the reassuring possibility of alternative timelines, any of which would have been preferable to the one we were stuck in over that period, banging pans in support of overstretched medical staff and having to listen to Gal Gadot and chums sing "Imagine". (And that was if you were lucky enough to be fit and well.) Palm Springs also had the edge over its streaming rivals in being especially well crafted and assembled, Andy Siara's deft, funny and economical screenplay the foundation of a movie that hits a complex series of story beats with the assurance of Rory McIlroy striking golf balls; that treats string theory as mere sport. The set-up is Groundhog Day with greater generosity. Going through the timeloop motions, now so familiar that Siara knows they barely require explanation: not just jaded slacker Nyles (Andy Samberg), stuck both at the aforementioned wedding and in a relationship that's going nowhere, but also Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the maid of honour who follows our guy into a crack in the time-space continuum and quickly finds herself every bit as immortal and miserable as he is.

There are a few whistles and bells, like J.K. Simmons as a third-wheel lounge lizard who comes on like Robert Patrick in Terminator II after Nyles inadvertently lures him into the couple's private hell. But like the great romcoms - and we're not that far off here - it essentially boils down to two likable people trying to thrash out something new: a prospect that's doubly promising and terrifying when your eternal bliss is literally eternal, and thus a problem in dire need of a fix. It's yet another of the recent run of worthwhile American movies that actually owes a certain debt to television, which could be one more reason it made itself so comfortable in locked-down homes. Both leads' timing has been sharpened to a point by long seasons of sitcom, and the basic premise turns out to be fairly sitcommy: the same characters shuffled into different positions with each new iteration of reality, Simmons effectively occupying the grumpy neighbour role in a B-plot adjacent to the main wedding business. The location shoot doubtless helped, but Samberg is the picture of relaxation, and he's also very good at suggesting a certain male passivity; as Nyles puts it, "I don't care about that stuff - that's my whole thing." He perhaps has to relax us to nudge us past the sight of a protagonist wiggling out of one relationship in order to initiate another, though Barbakow has the benefit of Search Party's ever-game Meredith Hagner in the role of Awful Girlfriend #1, and Milioti - who appears to have superceded Lizzy Caplan as the indie sector's wide-eyed brunette of choice, much as Emma Stone superceded Lindsay Lohan as Hollywood's most insurable redhead - opens up the appealing prospect of mischief. It's not ultimately a film about cheating or roadmanship, but it is playful and up for some fun; Sarah's presence in this timeloop also ensures it's not entirely a film about male misadventure or martyrdom, as Groundhog Day and The Butterfly Effect were. Sometimes it takes another human being - and a giant cosmic kick in the seat of our pants - to expand our ambitions and horizons; maybe we needed a movie released during a period of enforced social distancing to remind us of that.

Palm Springs is now streaming via Prime Video.

Saturday 26 March 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of March 18-20, 2022):

1 (1) The Batman (15) ***
2 (new) Jujitsu Kaisen 0 (15)
3 (2Uncharted (12A)
4 (new) The Nan Movie (15)
5 (new) The Phantom of the Open (12A)
6 (4) Sing 2 (U)
7 (new) X (18)
8 (5) The Duke (12A) ****
9 (15) The Kashmir Files (15)
10 (6) Dog (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
2. Europa
4. Chopper

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Spider-Man: No Way Home (12) ***
2 (new) The Matrix Resurrections (15)
3 (1) Clifford the Big Red Dog (PG)
4 (4) Dune (12) **
5 (5) No Time to Die (12) ***
6 (2) West Side Story (12) ***
7 (3) Encanto (U) ***
8 (6The King's Man (15)
9 (7) Ghostbusters: Afterlife (12) **
10 (10) Venom: Let There Be Carnage (15)

My top five: 
1. Petite Maman

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Braveheart [above] (Friday, BBC1, 10.35pm)
2. A Knight's Tale (Sunday, C4, 1.30pm)
3. Molly's Game (Sunday, BBC2, 10pm)
4. La La Land (Sunday, BBC1, 11.05pm)
5. Spotlight (Monday, BBC2, 11.40pm)

Friday 25 March 2022

Vivre sa vie: "The Worst Person in the World"

The "messy women" cycle of comedies initiated by 2010's Bridesmaids was in one respect a two-fingered response to all those schlubby men who sloped through American film in the first decade of the new century. If those callous and/or clueless dirtbags and douches could fumble their way to a happy ending, these films asked, then why couldn't equally dishevelled representatives of the fairer sex get there too? After the world-conquering British variant - Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag - it would appear the cycle has started to gather pace across Europe, too. A couple of years back we saw a pretty good French offering in Léonor Serraille's Jeune Femme; last year, the Norwegian writer-director Yngvild Sve Flikke gave us the even better Ninjababy; now - getting more philosophical than Melissa McCarthy could while voiding her bowels into a sink - Flikke's compatriot Joachim Trier (Oslo, August 31st, Thelma
makes the messy woman the subject of another of his excellent character studies. 

Styled after early Jean-Luc Godard (a title card promises us "12 chapters, a prologue and an epilogue"), The Worst Person in the World centres on Julie (Renate Reinsve), a med student who makes her first mistake (sleeping with her professor) at the five-minute mark, and the next (sleeping with an edgelord older cartoonist to the strains of Christopher Cross's "Ride Like the Wind") barely a minute after that. As signalled by the casting of Trier's acteur fétiche Anders Danielsen Lie in the role of the cartoonist, Aksel, this latter relationship is where the film's interest initially settles: the kind of grown-up tryst a young woman is meant to aspire to, but also one that gets so static so quickly (and so closely circumscribes the woman's place within it) that nobody's really happy. Especially as Julie, with her sudden and unexpected changes of hair colour, expresses some confusion about who she is and what she wants; in the course of the movie, she will assume the roles of student, shopgirl, writer and photographer. It's a great role for any actress, in that Julie tries on identities like hats (as twentysomethings often do), and in the opportunity it presents to mitigate against the calumny of that title. Julie is not the worst person in the world, not in a world that encompasses Vladimir Putin, Pitbull and Grant Shapps, but the character is conceived from the outset as a tourbillion, and anybody looking on - within the film, or without - will have their work cut out trying to keep up with her. Ride like the wind, indeed.

Fortunately Trier, for one, has the energy and empathy to do just that. No two movies in this filmography have ever been quite alike: the new one unfolds on the streets of the Norwegian capital, as did the (superbly) depressive Oslo, August 31st and the Gothic horror Thelma, but it's an Oslo that now looks as photogenic and desirable as Godard's Paris, putting on one party after another, full of bright young things. (It remains pretty even when one character is caught puking against a tree.) Like many emergent movie brats, Trier appears to have absorbed just about the entire history of cinema; crucially, though, he also seems to have processed it in a way that allows him to express himself, sincerely, in a different form every time. Part of this director's considerable empathy for his heroine stems from an understanding that he, too, has been a shapeshifter in his time. After the deathly pallor of Oslo, August 31st and the artful shadows of Thelma, The Worst Person in the World proceeds in lush colour, with a sunnier outlook and a gleaming pop soundtrack that reveals a newfound allegiance to the Cinéma du Youth. (We know we're in safe hands the moment Trier drops the needle on Amerie's very great "1 Thing"; a later trip sequence defies cinematic convention by being imaginative, as opposed to merely excruciating.) 

His foremost achievement here, though, has been to temper this surface charm with moments of reflection: a lingering stroll home at dusk during which Julie realises she's not where she wants to be, a turbulent homecoming that reveals her as the product of a failed marriage and the daughter of an actress. (This makes perfect sense after everything we've witnessed inside the first hour.) It's a film that cuts its Godard with Bergman, if that's a reference that means anything to today's twentysomethings. That would certainly account for the spectre of infidelity that hovers over this Miss Julie's interactions. The film keeps brushing up against real emotional hurt - and once or twice, in pursuing her own happiness, Julie does something that might well lead casual observers to conclude this person truly numbers among the worst people on, say, Tinder, at least. But Trier isn't a casual observer, and one of the mitigations he sets in place, in a film that fully embraces the auteurist tradition, is the warmth and equanimity of a Renoir. For better and worse, the film notes and underlines, everyone has their reasons. Julie's just testing the boundaries, as we've all been inclined to do from time to time in our lives - pushing it, if you prefer. That much is clear from a sequence wherein, while still notionally attached to Aksel the cartoonist, she goads a fellow partygoer, Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), into seeing how far the two of them can go without technically cheating, a game that will eventually involve watching one another pee. (Different strokes, and all that.) She's rebelling against the merest hint of rigidity, which is why Trier grants her the midfilm fantasy - a flight of fancy only a movie could pull off - of being able to stop time, so as to run free around the city while all but her and her newfound beloved have been frozen in place. 

I'll confess to one reservation with The Worst Person in the World, and it's this. I could buy that any Phoebe Waller-Bridge character might be a handful, and I certainly understood why Serraille cast the flighty Laetitia Dosch as her representative messy woman. Reinsve, for her part, is as captivating as reviews have said - you cannot take your eyes off her, and the film depends on that. Yet remove the heart-shaped spectacles and you spot she's also just a notch or two too upright and together a screen presence to fit the role's sloppy posture; it's as if someone had cast soprano's-daughter-turned-multi-award-nominated actor-writer-director Rebecca Hall as a free spirit. Reinsve can't help but do well by Julie's late-blooming maturity, but that's because it was plainly there in the actress all along: everything here is pushing that casual observer towards the conclusion that any world that regards a girl like this as its worst has its values royally tangled up. (It's Julie's opinion of herself, and something she has to hurdle in order to be the woman we want her to be.) But Trier gets so much else right. Unlike a lot of modern romantic cinema, TWPITW has really good, fully convincing hook-ups and break-ups, born of unforgettable observation or life experience. (Aksel also undergoes a stormy radio interview that suggests Trier and regular co-writer Eskil Vogt have been keeping a beadily Godardian eye on the media.) And it's unusual to see a film where even the thirtysomething characters are stuck in service-industry jobs, struggling to find fulfilment within a system that doesn't allow for anything other than relentless economic growth. That detail is where Trier's film most closely aligns with early Godard - in the elegant dovetailing of the personal with the political. (And Trier is, by directorial nature, far less inclined to make a grouchy fuss about it.) This is a film that builds and grows over twelve chapters, two hours: by the end, you should be left in no doubt that what you've been watching constitutes one of the most complete portraits of a lady the 21st century cinema has blessed us with.

The Worst Person in the World is now showing in selected cinemas.

The running man: "Europa"

Haider Rashid's
Europa is the migrant experience put over in the same hyper-immersive, XBox-adjacent manner as Sam Mendes's 1917: a kid running for his life over 72 minutes, presented as but a thin slice of what tens of thousands experience every day. (I'm tempted to say more than ever at the present moment, although the exodus out of Ukraine in the wake of the Russian invasion appears from this distance to be far better managed; Rashid's focus is on those who don't have the relative luxury of international visibility.) After four stark intertitles offering context, we're dropped with a thud on the Turkish-Bulgarian border, a hair's breadth away from a young Iraqi in a Mo Salah shirt (Adam Ali), who's about to find his fight-or-flight reflexes tested in a big way. The threats he faces are multidirectional: from the authorities who would police such movements, those criminal gangs afforded carte blanche to organise (and profit from) border crossings, and - increasingly - from so-called "migrant hunters", tooled-up ultra-nationalists who don't take too kindly to unfamiliar faces. The unrelenting pursuit that follows forms an attempt to walk a few miles - or scramble, really - in the tattered footwear of one who doesn't want to be here, and doesn't know whether he's going to get much further. I'm going to recommend Rashid's film, but that's not to say it isn't an occasionally jolting and discomfiting experience.

As with 1917, the impression is of a successfully sustained technical feat, though Europa is less showy than its predecessor, which was likely always conceived by its makers as year-end awards bait. Rashid isn't fussed about faking up unbroken takes; his cuts and elisions propel the film forward from uncertain day to less certain night, and from plodding woodland boredom to the next do-or-die interaction. This is neither an illustrated thesis nor homework (as the much-admired Flee felt like to this viewer), but a true motion picture that conveys its truths on the hoof. Rashid works especially closely with Ali, who has far less to say than George Mackay's dashing soldier boy in 1917, but nevertheless articulates a nimble, resourceful avatar, using his shirt's hem to tie up a flapping trainer, climbing a tree to evade one search party, repurposing a dead man's shoes (while giving his body as close as he can to a proper burial). We might still want to know more about him: where the mother he's heard murmuring about now is, how he got here, where he'd like to be going. Removing this lad of almost everything but his passport reframes him as a vaguely idealised Everymigrant. (That football shirt is to the protagonist what "Take on Me" is to the subject of Flee: a readily universalising element.) What we're dashing past is the detail of a more conventional endeavour like 2013's The Golden Dream, still the strongest recent film on the crossing of borders. Yet as an item of in-the-moment cinema - an extended setpiece, in effect - Europa is undeniably effective: you, too, will feel the panic rise and the body temp drop, as well as the spirit ebbing as our boy is backed into another, possibly deadly corner. (You, too, keep fingers and toes crossed that he'll pull through.) What if just one of the faces this traveller had encountered were friendly? Wouldn't that be enough in itself to change someone's world for the better?

Europa is now playing at London's ICA, and is available to rent via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema and YouTube.

Thursday 24 March 2022

The faults in our stars: "Radhe Shyam"

Never underestimate the power of Prabhas. The dashing Telugu star of the
Baahubali blockbusters singlehandedly lifted the lulu star-crossed romance Radhe Shyam into the UK Top 10 last week, in the face of stiff opposition from The Batman, Gangubai Kathiawadi and the most bananas script of this or any other year. For starters: the star's playing Vikramaditya, "the Einstein of palmistry" - signature look: furrowed brow, black polo neck - introduced undertaking the palmist equivalent of a Gap year in Europe, which seems to entail bedding a never-ending supply of pliant blondes before dumping them in unusual locations: up a mountain, at the side of the road, wherever. As he insists upon repeating: "I don't want a relationship, just flirtationship." We're waiting for the one girl to come along who might stop him in his tracks, and - oh look - here's Prerana (Pooja Hegde), a scarcely less flighty sort first seen roping understandably puzzled backpackers into gripping her scarf like a bungee cord so she can hang out the open side of a fast-moving train. (Once again, an Indian film that can only remind British viewers of poor Vyvyan on TV's The Young Ones.)

Having established the perilously low bar of its own credibility, Radhe Shyam sets off round the continent on a tour of those countries that were open to overseas travellers during the Covid pandemic. The final destination is London, where our hero's mum is set to perform in the prestigious "London Dance Festival" (nope, never heard of it); for most of these two hours, we hunker down in Italy, where our lovers scribble all over the walls of an old railway station without on-the-spot fines being issued, and we're invited to believe a coachload of local prep schoolers would understand the messages Vikram and Prerana etch into window condensation in their native Telugu. We're in the land of the Romance languages, of course - and you should see the fuss writer-director Radha Krishna Kumar makes over a hospital called "Destino" - but this is clearly one of those films that invites, nay encourages, its audience to forgive its copious nonsense because said nonsense is being deployed in the service of a big old collective swoon. It's a getaway that involves taking leave of one's own senses.

A not unenjoyable mixed bag, though, and Kumar at least ensures this is big screen-ready nonsense. The connective train journeys beget some ugly green-screen, and London, when we finally arrive, is but a CG Tower Bridge, presumably due to travel restrictions. Yet elsewhere the film offers pleasant pan-European scenery and sets the size of the Sistine Chapel, the better to accommodate both this narrative's wilder swings and the fact its head is so far up in the stratosphere. (Look out for the operating theatre that shares an interior designer with La Scala.) Its ideas really are loopy-lou. Vikram's palmistry gift is illustrated by a rubbing of the forehead and Psych-like VFX that tell him what to tell his clients. And the movie betrays no indication that its hero might be a puffed-up phoney, even after he tells Prerana "you are going to live one hundred years" and she promptly starts bleeding from the nose. (Maybe he's onto something: even after a terminal cancer diagnosis, Hegde is soon radiant again.) Sometimes a film beguiles you in spite of getting barely one in ten of the basics right; here's a case in point. After being hit by a speeding bus, Vikram can be seen walking - bloodsoaked but upright - into the ER where Prerana happens to work as a doctor, albeit one most commonly dressed as a flower girl; five minutes later, he's discharged without a scratch or a scar. No-one has any luggage or bags to haul around with them; Vikram doesn't even have a coat when he bikes up a mountain in the pouring rain.

And so you conclude this is one of those confections whipped up in haste for no other reason than to get an audience back in the same room as their idols after a few months (or, in our germy case, years) apart. Even when giving a lengthy monologue about the price of a hairclip, Prabhas remains gravely debonair in his rollnecks; I couldn't tell you how old he is just from looking, though I would say there are points where his onscreen mother appears a good ten years younger than he is. Hegde is an exceedingly pretty actress doing her best with a role that feels as if someone in the vicinity - whether Vikram, the screenwriters or the fates - is messing terribly with her. If you were feeling especially harsh, you might dismiss Radhe Shyam as every bit as much a fuckboy as its gadabout of a protagonist: a film that toys with the emotions of any onlookers, offering a few scant minutes of fun here and there while steadfastly refusing to coalesce into a story worth telling or remembering. Yet it is fun, in an absurd way, and a big part of that craziness is that the budget only seems to swell as the movie barrels onwards: Kumar gives us a yowling great final act in which Vikram undergoes trial by fire and sea, then tacks on some bonus nonsense involving a phone call being patched through to that grandly operatic operating space. If Mystic Meg, Eileen Drewery and James Cameron had collaborated on a money-to-burn Telugu production at the height of a deadly global pandemic, this might have been the result: different, to be sure, but also three-quarters of the way to being completely, certifiably cuckoo.

Radhe Shyam is now playing in selected cinemas.

Girl boss: "Gangubai Kathiawadi"

After the enforced pause of the pandemic, Indian cinema is all set to supersize again in 2022. Advanced notice was served via December's rowdy Pushpa: The Rise, a surprise success from a region that recovered from Covid sooner than most; SS Rajamouli's long-awaited Baahubali follow-up RRR opens - in multiple languages - this week. In between, we've been treated to Sanjay Leela Bhansali's remarkable Gangubai Kathiawadi, a period crime saga - drawn from the pages of Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges's non-fiction anthology Mafia Queens of Mumbai - which has seen off the reissued Godfather films (not a bad comparison point) to achieve the impossible and hold down multiplex screen times a month into its theatrical run. It might initially seem faintly implausible that so much lavish maximalism should rest on the dainty shoulders of Bollywood's current sparrow-in-chief Alia Bhatt. Yet I concluded my review of 2018's spy thriller Raazi by floating the idea that Bhatt may be the best young actress working anywhere in the world right now, and Gangubai comprehensively firms that idea up. Bhatt has never had a bigger stage than the one Bhansali provides for her here, nor a role more carefully tailored to her thoughtful strengths, and she seizes it all with the aplomb of a true movie star - perhaps the first great new movie star of the 21st century. Netflix, for one, have already sat up and noticed, casting Bhatt alongside Jamie Dornan and Gal Gadot in their next slab of content; I'm tempted to say she deserves better still, but I guess we'll see.

For the time being, we have what feels even at this early stage like the Queen Christina or Scarlet Empress of the Bhatt filmography: an eyecatching coronation, based on the true story of Ganga Harjivandas, a small town barrister's daughter who was sold into sex slavery before rising to become one of Bombay's most powerful madams, taking her campaign for sex workers' rights as high and as far as then-Prime Minister Nehru. It's a hell of an arc - from wholly disempowered ingenue to steely-hearted businesswoman and no-nonsense bad-ass - and Bhansali establishes the very great distance that needs to be covered early on with a flashback from Gangu's mid-1960s pomp to her younger days as an exploitable field mouse: you'll struggle to believe this is even remotely the same individual, until Bhatt steps forward as both. Harjivandas vowed that if she was being shuttled against her will into a profession that routinely entailed degradation and humiliation, she was going to do the job better and make more of it than anybody else. It'd be a stretch for most cosseted millionaire megastars to portray that credibly, but it's a stretch that tallies surprisingly comfortably with that streak of self-improvement that's been central to the Bhatt screen persona since Student of the Year and Dear Zindagi. We're watching a woman who's put in long hours to conquer her particular corner of the world playing a woman putting in long hours to conquer her particular corner of the world.

And what a world this is. In 2015's Bajirao Mastani and 2018's Padmaavat, Bhansali constructed the same kind of gorgeous traps for his actresses that Shah Jahan did in commissioning the Taj Mahal for his wife. Here, a large part of the filmmaker's attention has been given over to a meticulous recreation of the red light area of Kamathipura, a teeming mini-metropolis with sunsets the colour of faded bruises. Some effort has been made to prettify - or Bhansalify - these sidestreets: when the electricity goes out, the working girls take to their balconies with candles. Yet Bhansali makes his secondary site of action the female body, and in doing so he pushes some way beyond a merely decorative or superficial account of prostitution. The film opens with a close-up of a child being violently made-up, and the same framing recurs elsewhere, first when Gangu is making herself up with a powder puff that lands on the soundtrack like a baseball bat, then after her face is set about by an abusive client. In a genuinely horrifying reprise - where it almost seems as though Anurag Kashyap has hijacked the camera for a few scenes - the client returns to the brothel a few days later, and Gangu agrees to meet with him for four times her usual asking price. This is at once a more confrontational strategy than Bhansali employed over the course of Padmaavat, where Deepika Padukone remained pristine - a goddess - even as she was driven towards self-incineration by the clingiest man in the cosmos. 

Whether rightly or wrongly, Bhansali has gained a reputation for being ultra-demanding of his performers, insisting they subjugate themselves to his overall vision for a project. (It's what elevates him above the many Indian filmmakers who have next to no idea how a film should look, and even less about what to do with their stars.) Yet the Harjivandas story does seem to have prompted him into thinking a little deeper about coercion and control, and to recognise that sometimes a badass is often an ingenue who's been treated badly - someone who's healed and hardened, and determined that others should not suffer as they have. There are clearly drawn parallels between the fate of the working girl and that of the actress, not least in the epitaph the film writes for both itself and its heroine in the closing moments: "She wanted to be a moviestar, and her life played out like a grand movie." Yet they're always in play throughout an unusually self-aware and self-reflexive magnum opus, one that feels very much like Bhansali's first significant contribution to post-#MeToo discourse. Gangubai Kathiawadi is the story of a woman in the sex industry first and foremost, but that story also provides a model for another sometimes disreputable industry - the film business - which itself remains in urgent need of reform.

It is also, I should point out at this point, a rollicking piece of entertainment; its near-three hours pass far, far quicker than those of The Batman. After a run of pre- and mid-pandemic Hindi films that seemed to be making themselves up (badly) as they went along, it's a relief to see time and money being spent on a vision of India expressed with supreme confidence and fluency by a creative working somewhere close to the top of his game. The Bhansali touch is evident in the film's finely drawn supporting roles; the attention to detail extends outwards. There is excellent, genuinely characterful work from Seema Pahwa as the madam Gangu first works under, then supercedes; a shrewdly cast Ajay Devgn as the gruff politico our heroine looks to for protection (and far outstrips in the memory); Indira Tiwari as Gangu's in-house confidante, foremost among a set of sex workers who all have individual personalities, inner lives; Jim Sarbh as a rare sweetheart journalist who helps bring Gangu's push for equality to wider attention; and from Vijay Raaz as a trans rival whose bid for red-light power is doomed the minute Gangu puts on a free public screening to divert voters from a rally. (In Bhansali-land, movies trump politics every time.) This is Gangu's story, but it's also a film of a thousand stories, and Bhansali realises he has to do justice to them all if he's to do true justice to his protagonist.

That would hobble lesser motion-picture makers, and there are even places in Gangubai Kathiawadi where you feel the responsibility of hauling history into the present weighing heavy on Bhansali's shoulders. The first half has the flat-out momentum of any notable rise to power, but the second initially looks to be scrabbling to find the one narrative line that would carry everybody through to a satisfying conclusion. (Eventually, it realises: the throughline is Gangu herself, her life and achievements. You don't need to invent much when the raw biographical material is this strong.) But there's so much else to marvel at here beyond narrative. The old Bhansali, the great image-fetishist of contemporary Indian cinema, manifests from time to time in images that are so just so that you can't help but smile, like the group hug where the pastels of the brothel girls' skirts complement each other perfectly. The tenderest scene has Gangu being measured for a sari by a lovestruck young tailor's assistant; the song sequence it cues - "Jab Saiyaan" - constitutes the loveliest swoon anybody's troubled to film in years, though even here Bhansali isn't content with sweetness and light, demonstrating a sharp eye for the myriad ways in which potential lovers interact. (Call it romantic anthropology.) Crucially, he rejects the tired old melodramatic trope that insists anyone who strays from the path of righteousness is doomed to die sooner and lonelier than anybody else. For once in recent history, a Bhansali heroine isn't a martyr, which seems a major step forward.

Bhatt repays the compliment by giving what may well prove the performance of the year, in part because this role forces her to cover so much territory - from punchbag to sorority officer, from there to union rep and life coach - and often to transform from one incarnation of Gangu into another in the course of a single scene. One obvious masterclass, which prospective starlets would do well to study in coming years: Gangu's first phone call home in twelve years, a rat run of gear changes from nerviness to relaxation to genuine upset, handled with immense skill. Another: the drum song "Dholida", where the arc - communal celebration to personal desolation - seems to mirror that of a million sex workers who've burned themselves out by giving too much (and yet lived to dance again). Like the truly great star roles, Gangu allows Bhatt to reveal something hitherto unseen or unheard at every other turn: she does something earthier with her voice, if I'm hearing correctly, and she's a terrific screen drunk, looser than she's ever been on screen, and funny with it. As "Dholida" demonstrates, she can dance expressively, too. Is there anything this young woman can't do? I worry that RRR - which was meant to open back in January, and in which the actress apparently appears in a supporting role - is now set up to seem like an egregious squandering of Bhatt's talents. Then again, after Gangubai Kathiawadi, even the role of Cleopatra might seem like an egregious squandering of Alia Bhatt's talents.

Gangubai Kathiawadi is now showing in selected cinemas.

Friday 18 March 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of March 11-13, 2022):

1 (1) The Batman (15) ***
2 (2Uncharted (12A)
3 (new) BTS Permission to Dance on Stage - Seoul: Live Viewing (uncertificated)
4 (3Sing 2 (U)
5 (4) The Duke (12A) ****
6 (6) Dog (12A)
7 (5Death on the Nile (12A)
8 (7Spider-Man: No Way Home (12A) ***
9 (new) Radhe Shyam (12A) **
10 (8) Belfast (12A) **

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. The Godfather: Part II
2. The Godfather: 50th Anniversary

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (new) Clifford the Big Red Dog (PG)
2 (7) West Side Story (12) ***
3 (2) Encanto (U) ***
4 (3) Dune (12) **
5 (4) No Time to Die (12) ***
6 (1) The King's Man (15)
7 (6) Ghostbusters: Afterlife (12) **
8 (8) The Suicide Squad (15) *
9 (5) House of Gucci (15)
10 (9) Venom: Let There Be Carnage (15)

My top five: 
1. Petite Maman

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Bridge of Spies [above] (Saturday, C4, 11.30pm)
2. Hell or High Water (Thursday, C4, 1.50am)
3. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Saturday, ITV, 10.45pm)
4. The Elephant Man (Monday, BBC2, 12.15am)
5. Battle of the Sexes (Tuesday, C4, 1.05am)

Flirting with disaster: "Red Rocket"

After the grand success of 2017's
The Florida Project, Red Rocket finds writer-director Sean Baker returning to the business of people ducking and diving at the American margins. The new film centres on one Mikey Davis a.k.a. Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), a sometime porn star who's just been forcibly ejected from the biz, judging by the bruises he sports in the opening scene; as we catch up with him, amid the run-up to the 2016 election, he's returning to his small Texan hometown for the first time since *NSYNC were in vogue, older but not notably wiser. The residents are slow to catch on to the fact there's a potential monster in their midst. While Baker busies himself sketching his dirt-poor and hitherto sorely overlooked location, a place where there's barely anything to do save watch TV all day, Mikey somehow worms his way back into the two-bedroom house his estranged wife shares with her aged mother, and attempts to rebuild himself from scratch. Unemployable due to gaps on his CV (and doubts over what's actually on there), ineligible for benefits, he resorts to weed-slinging to support himself and using his dubious charms to get whatever else he wants, but the film around him remains steadfastly unhurried. Baker takes a good 45 minutes to establish that this is a character who's turning circles and going nowhere fast, who develops merely in progressing from chasing tail to chasing his own tail. (There's a high proportion of dog in Mikey's DNA; he could strike you as puppyish, were you to encounter him on the right afternoon.) All credit to Baker, who's taken the goodwill afforded him following The Florida Project - a film genial enough to become a crossover hit, despite the hardships it observed at the fringes of American society - and invested it in something chancier and more challenging: an extended study of a character who is both the model of a good ol' boy and a useless sack of shit.

What Baker sensed is that Rex presents as an intriguing study: an actual porn star turned MTV VJ who briefly courted Paris Hilton before fading into the dim recesses of the collective pop-cultural memory. Rediscovered in his mid-forties, he rather resembles a Bradley Cooper descending into middle-aged seed; the character of Mikey - residually handsome and buff, prosthetically well-endowed - has taken care of himself, but to what end is open to question. Baker needs Rex to charm us, too - to turn it on as he once did for Paris. He does, because he knows where the laughs are in this script - principally, in Mikey's near-total absence of self-awareness. Clock his defensiveness around winning a Best Oral award for a scene in which he was more done to than doing; try not to chuckle when he declares "keeping it on the DL is the secret of my success", and then ask yourself what this dude's definition of success might be. He's this close to being a clueless, lovable dolt; you find yourself warming to him from time to time. Yet he's also fundamentally rootless, grasping, even predatory, and here's where Red Rocket starts to get trickier. Mikey's big score - the get-rich-quick scheme by which he expects to improve his prospects - is to seduce a 17-year-old donut shop waitress, Rayleigh a.k.a. Strawberry (Suzanna Son), and turn her out in L.A. as his new porn protégée. It's almost as if Baker were remaking The Florida Project from the perspective of the pederast Willem Dafoe chased away from the condo; anybody troubled by Licorice Pizza's central relationship risks having their head explode here. Baker has upended the American-dreamer subgenre, by centring it on a grafter/grifter whose own head has been screwed on funny, or at least filled with funny ideas, particularly with regard to women. Those TVs in the background most often alight upon the figure of Donald J. Trump; the implication seems to be that Mikey, with his Stars-and-Stripes spliffs, is more representative than first thought.

Despite that, what you take away from Red Rocket is light, space and fresh air. The widescreen Baker and cinematographer Drew Daniels shoot in not only allows a better feel for their sleepy locale, it never lets toxicity build up, and it affords us greater room to approach these characters on the level, without undue judgement. Baker can back away from Mikey whenever he gets too much; he's never entirely in our face. Though long for a film that's really about nothing more significant than a dipshit tripping over his own dick - 2hrs 10, the leeway you get when your last movie charmed the pants off everybody - Red Rocket is brisk when it needs to be; despite the darkness in the corner of its eye, it's an easy, largely enjoyable watch. For much of the duration, we're hanging out with these people; nothing is forced on us. In a more conventional film, the emergency warning system we hear being tested early on would foreshadow some last-reel crisis. Baker just absorbs it as part of everyday life, while being alert to its useful subtexts. (Mikey Saber is back in town; lock up your daughters.) In the moment of The Batman, such breeziness is a rare, precious and subversive commodity; as Licorice Pizza realised, it may be all we have left to connect today's American independents to the New Hollywood of the 1970s. Yet it permits filmmakers time and space to reveal personality in a way the tangled narratives of the comic-book movie rarely do. The 26-year-old Son's performance has gone underacknowledged amid the acclaim for Rex, but it's essential to the film's blithe charm. We can relax to a degree once we sense this girl is in no immediate danger from either protagonist, filmmaker or film; that she has the quick wit and inner steel to survive whatever's thrown at her. (Son certainly doesn't play Strawberry as a victim in the conventional understanding of that term. A co-conspirator, maybe? But now we truly are getting into tricky territory.) And it is a terrific performance by Rex: no Oscar nod - too committed to its own skeeze for that - but bound for commemoration in future dictionaries as an unimprovable illustration of the epithet fuckboy. We should all hope to heaven that it is a performance.

Red Rocket is now showing in selected cinemas.

Thursday 17 March 2022

In memoriam: William Hurt (Telegraph 14/03/22)

William Hurt, who has died aged 71, made his name on stage and screen as a rigorous, intelligent leading man, capable of lending even the most humdrum production an air of refinement. Tall, blonde and diffidently handsome, he broke through with an exceptional run of 1980s films that made full use of his good looks and versatility. In Body Heat (1981), he was the lawyer heading crotch-first towards destruction via femme fatale Kathleen Turner; he won the Best Actor Oscar for playing the crossdressing Luis Molina, incarcerated narrator of Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985); and then underlined his pin-up credentials as James, the sensitive speech tutor courting Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God (1986), transforming sudsy material into a thinking person’s weepie.

His upright posture invited mocking, and Hurt gamely caught the spirit of James L. Brooks’ enduring media comedy Broadcast News (1987) as TV anchorman Tom Grunick, prettiest yet stiffest corner of the film’s indelibly etched love triangle. Less sympathetic observers wondered whether that stiffness was in fact early-onset woodenness, but he persistently tested and reinvented himself over his long screen career. He earned the first Oscar nomination for an actor in a comic-book adaptation with an astonishing extended cameo as a Mob boss in A History of Violence (2005), where his natural coolness hardened into throat-seizing viciousness. Hurt maintained he was only doing his job: “You know, if you do the work right, everybody’s vivid. Every life is vivid. That’s what we’re trying to say, right?”

He was born William McChord Hurt on March 20, 1950, into a worldly, well-connected Washington household. With his father, the State Department employee Alfred McChord, the young William travelled to Guam, Lahore, Mogadishu and Khartoum. (He had been conceived during an earlier trip to Shanghai.) After McChord died in 1960, his wife Claire (née McGill), an editorial assistant at Time magazine, remarried with Henry Luce III, son of Time founder Henry Luce and the diplomat Clare Boothe Luce. The stage presented some degree of stability. When Hurt graduated from the Middlesex School in 1968, he did so as vice-president of the school’s dramatics society, the school’s yearbook predicting: “With characteristics such as [his], you might even see him on Broadway.”

Somewhat circuitously, that prediction was borne out. The scholarly Hurt headed to Tufts University to study theology, only to fall in with a different crowd. After marrying actress Mary Beth Hurt in 1971, he signed up to study drama the following year at Julliard, where classmates included Christopher Reeve and Robin Williams. Plunging into summer stock amid the chaos of the 1970s, he caught eyes at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival of 1975; upon graduating from Julliard, he joined New York’s Circle Repertory Company. This immersion in theatrical life shaped his philosophy: “I had done sixty plays [including an acclaimed Hamlet in 1979] before I did a movie… I didn't want [the work] to be superficial, so I slowed down instead of speeding up.”

The approach paid off. After gathering some on-camera experience in a 1977 episode of TV’s Kojak, Hurt landed his first film role in a readymade cult classic: Ken Russell’s hallucinogenic head-trip Altered States (1980), where the actor’s intensity meshed entirely with Russell’s lunatic vision. A shrewd scriptreader, Hurt barely made a bad choice early on, succeeding in carving out a viable career as a thoughtful romantic lead at a time when American cinema was becoming the domain of steroidal action men. He demonstrated easy chemistry with his co-stars: a good match with Sigourney Weaver in Eyewitness (1981), he burned up the screen with Turner on Body Heat, and – despite some mutterings about his Methody approach – slotted nicely into the epochal ensemble of The Big Chill (1983).

Some turbulence followed this initial rise to prominence. Hurt divorced Mary Beth in 1982 having moved in with Sandra Jennings the previous year, but he finally achieved his dream of appearing on Broadway – and won a Tony – with Mike Nichols’ all-star 1984 production of David Rabe’s bruising Hollywood melodrama Hurlyburly. In his film choices, Hurt was becoming only more adventurous, waiving his fee and flying out to Brazil (where he was threatened by armed robbers) to occupy that early trans role in Kiss of the Spider Woman. The Oscar was reward for the risk, yet Hurt wrestled with the stardom it conferred upon him, asking Sally Field, who presented him with the gong: “Sally, what the hell do I do with this?” (Her response: “You live with it.”)

The 1990s found Hurt in steady employment, but the erstwhile young swain was starting to appear patrician or professorial: his Rochester in Franco Zeffirelli’s dingy Jane Eyre (1996) was the closest he came to a romantic lead. It felt natural that he should gravitate into Woody Allen’s world with Alice (1990), but his judgement had been clouded by heavy drinking, and his selectiveness began to count against him: he turned down both the James Caan role in Misery (1990) and Sam Neill's role in Jurassic Park (1993). His adventurousness flirted with waywardness, meanwhile, carrying him into Wim Wenders’ unfathomable Until the End of the World (1991), to Wales for the glum Second Best (1994) and into space for so-so spectacle Lost in Space (1998).

He’d settled into middle age by the millennium, remaining on casting agents’ radars as an indicator of class in supporting roles: as Professor Hobby in Spielberg’s singular A.I. (2001), Samuel L. Jackson’s sponsor in Changing Lanes (2002), one of the paranoid townsfolk in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (2004). These were flashes of quiet genius, but those ten minutes in A History of Violence were lightning in a bottle, testament to director David Cronenberg’s ability both to mould pulp into viscerally affecting art, and to guide a perpetual worrywart of a performer through his offscreen concerns. As Hurt confessed, “[Cronenberg] was so kind with me. I arrived ten days early. I filmed only for a couple of days. I’m of the belief there are no small roles. Only small actors.”

The Oscar nomination ensured him regular work in end-of-year awards bait: he reappeared among the ensembles of Syriana (2005) and the DeNiro-directed The Good Shepherd (2006), and was touching as the doomed Christopher McCandless’s distant father Walt in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007). By the end of the decade, he’d embraced the authority roles he’d long seemed destined to play, facing an assassination threat as the President in tricksy thriller Vantage Point (2008) and – most profitably of all – assuming the military garb of General Thaddeus E. “Thunderbolt” Ross within the Marvel universe, first in The Incredible Hulk (2008) and then from CaptainAmerica: Civil War (2016): latter-day ensemble work, offering the kind of paycheques that can steady an ageing actor’s nerves.

In later life, Hurt moved back to Oregon, where he flew planes and quit the drinking that had earned him a difficult reputation; he renewed an apology to Matlin after revelations of offscreen physical abuse emerged in her 2009 memoir. He mixed film work with theatre gigs and blue-chip TV fare: the twisty legal saga Damages (2009), earning a Golden Globe nomination for playing Treasury secretary Henry Paulson in HBO’s Too Big to Fail (2011). In interviews, he grew more reflective yet: “When you’re a kid, you’re beset by fears and you think, ‘I’ll solve the fear by living forever and becoming a movie star.’ But I’m not going to live forever. And the more I know it, the more amazed I am by being here at all. I am so thrilled by the privilege of life, and yet at the same time I know I have to let it go.”

He is survived by four children: one son (Alexander) by Susan Jennings, two more (Willie and Samuel) by Heidi Henderson, and a daughter (Jeanne Bonnaire-Hurt) by the actress Sandrine Bonnaire.

William Hurt, born March 20, 1950, died March 13, 2022.