Film reviews

Crowe’s nest
Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World, dir. Peter Weir.

The queues—and they’re long—are about 70 per cent male. Interesting, because what they get for their money, apart from a couple of short, smoky sea battles and Russell Crowe’s (right) commanding swagger as Captain Jack Aubrey, is a fair dose of life before the mast. It ain’t all adventure: weevily food, hammocks that wreck your back and no workers’ comp; weeks in the literal doldrums, a lot of shipboard domesticity at close quarters—sail sewing, deck swabbing, rope coiling. And discipline—this is the British navy, 1805, under threat from Napoleon, and with much of the crew press-ganged into service. A man is flogged for declining to salute an officer.

It’s also a film about personal command—the charisma and integrity of leadership. (Maybe that accounts for its appeal at a time when leadership has become an event staged with a Thanksgiving turkey.) Aubrey has Admiralty orders to pursue a French frigate, the Acheron, a faster, better equipped vessel than Aubrey’s HMS Surprise. But by his own admission, he exceeds his orders from Brazil on, so the quest becomes a personal obsession as well as a test of his ability to carry men with him. There is more than a touch of Prince Hal Aubrey—even a version of the ‘Once more unto the breech’ speech. ‘This ship is England’, declares Aubrey. And his rhetoric works.

Weir is interested, as he has been before (remember Gallipoli?), in the whys of power and how men wield it. In Master And Commander he uses the pairing of Aubrey and his friend, the Irish ship’s doctor and naturalist, Maturin (Paul Bettany, exquisite in repaired spectacles), to examine the limits of power. As the pair improvise string duets together, so they question one another about war and personal ambition.
The questions linger, which is why this is an interesting film. They linger in the atmosphere that Weir conjures so skilfully—the sea, the French quarry in the mist. But, finally, adventure rules, and Russell Crowe’s implacably glamorous Captain Aubrey, sailing off to another daring encounter with the Acheron, embodies the film’s strength, but also its confining weakness.

Morag Fraser

Sharp edges
In The Cut, dir. Jane Campion.

Campion sure can direct. Whether or not she can subvert a genre and control a sprawling slasher plot at the same time is still up for discussion.

In The Cut is many things—both good and bad, edgy and flat, tragic and silly, erotic and irritating. These contradictions are the film’s downfall, but Campion’s and her characters’ casually uptight way of dealing with danger is genuinely subversive and lends the film more grace than gratuity.

Frannie (Meg Ryan) is an English teacher—sexually frustrated and lonely. She meets homicide detective James Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) when a piece of a woman’s ‘de-articulated’ body ends up in the garden bed below her apartment window. The meeting is brief and frightening—charged with intelligence and crudity. And so begins the film’s strange and unusual beat.

Encouraged by her half-sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to pursue Malloy, ‘if only for the exercise’, Frannie begins a dark slide into a relationship that is equal parts perfect and destructive.

The scenes between Pauline and Frannie are the highlights of In The Cut. Half-phrases and intimate understandings shared between two women who have spent a lifetime together. This is where Campion’s direction really comes alive. Full of enquiring detail and texture, obliging you to forget plot and soak up character. Ironically this is both the film’s downfall and its saving grace. The interior imaginings of the film’s lead characters are drawn sharply but the plot is left floundering, almost to the point of silliness.

Frustrated by the mechanics of a thriller/slasher plot, In the Cut really doesn’t work. But boy oh boy would I prefer to see Campion’s failures than most directors’ successes. She is an important director. She sees the edges of stories, the desires that loiter in shadow (not the standard hidden desires—shocking ones that expand understanding rather than confirming fear) and explores the form of cinema in complex risky ways.

Siobhan Jackson

Down by the river
Mystic River, dir. Clint Eastwood.

Dennis Lehane builds his tragic crime novel, Mystic River, out of an intimate and precise sense of what anchors people—to family, to the place where they grew up, to dignity, to a sense of themselves. So you understand, reading him, exactly what is lost when those anchors drift, or are cut loose.

Clint Eastwood has absorbed and translated Lehane’s grasp of locale, of psychological context. He has also, in the quite superb casting of Mystic River, matched the monumentality of Lehane’s characters. This is, simply, a magnificent film.

Three men from the same Boston blue-collar district meet in adulthood. All are damaged, in linked ways. Jimmy’s daughter has just been murdered. Sean, now a Boston cop, is investigating. Dave, abused as a boy in an incident that left his two companions unscathed, is implicated. All three men have wives, families and connections somewhere between psycho-criminal and just plain complicated. Could be GoodFellas—banal tribal evil, with banality being the point. But Lehane and Eastwood operate on a grander scale. These characters touch tragedy.

The performances are extraordinary. Tim Robbins as Dave, the man-boy robbed of his childhood and innocence, is lit, by Eastwood and his crew, to become a kind of grotesque, a mirror of his own internal terrors. Sean Penn’s Jimmy, the reformed tough and bereft father, is mesmerising—one of the finest performances and most complex characters you’ll see on screen. He has his own Lady Macbeth in Laurey Linney. Marcia Gay Harden, as Dave’s accomplice-wife, Celeste, is Lady Macbeth haunted. Kevin Bacon, as the too-involved cop, has Laurence Fishburne as a sharp-tongued foil, and a reminder that this is crime genre—along with everything else.

Eastwood’s direction is masterful. All his emphases, got by music, by quick changes of angle or perspective, by sudden burst into light, are Lehane (a good wordy novelist) in another mode, fully rendered. But it is Eastwood too—this is indelibly his work—in the dark sonority, the pace, the close focus on faces, and the faithful way he films the physical jostle of these people’s lives, where wakes are held in crowded kitchens, and in the gravity of his way of giving form to the tumult in their hearts.

Morag Fraser

Saint Nick
Nicholas Nickleby, dir. Douglas McGrath.

Charles Dickens’ galleries of well-loved grotesques always seem to tempt fine actors to out-ham each other, and in Nicholas Nickleby (right), which deals directly in dramatics and self-dramatisation, the dream of the self is played out both in the theatre and in life. Nicholas is a rash, ardent, slightly priggish, good-hearted romantic thrown into sudden poverty by his father’s death. Along with his mother and sister, he then experiences the life of the poor in 19th-century English society. He earns the vindictive hatred of his wealthy uncle, Ralph Nickleby (Christopher Plummer), by said priggishness and good-heartedness. He suffers, becomes acquainted with cruelty and despair, and also unexpected kindness and love. It is easy to play it to the gallery, and why not? At feature-film length, if the main plotlines and characters of a Dickens novel come across successfully, you’re doing all right.

Packed with Jim Broadbents and Christopher Plummers and Barry Humphrieses, Douglas McGrath’s Nicholas Nickleby is occasionally real fun in the campy Christmas panto style (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but is patchy and sometimes tiresome and raucous. Try as it does, the ensemble cannot get past the incomprehensible error of casting Charlie Hunnam (late of Queer as Folk) as Nicholas Nickleby. Charlie Hunnam is a gorgeous young hunk with tousled long, blond hair and truly magnificent abdominals, which he displays inexplicably in a scene at Dotheboys Hall. He says his lines as if he means well, but doesn’t understand English properly—and blends into scenes of 1830s London only marginally better than Big Bird would. One after the other, some of the best character actors in movies today dash their performances to pieces against his irredeemably 21st-century handsome dopiness.

In spite of Nicholas Nickleby’s faults, it would be unfair not to mention Julia Stevenson’s Mrs Squeers, which is impressive and far more terrifying than Jim Broadbent’s Wackford Squeers. Heather Goldenhersh, as Fanny Squeers, is delightfully funny in her ill-fated pursuit of Nicholas. Romola Garai, as his sister Kate, conveys with delicacy the horrors of her lowered caste. McGrath did better with his version of Emma in 1996—perhaps Jane Austen’s simple, elegant plots are harder to muss, even by blondes.

Lucille Hughes

 

 

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