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Soft sympathy and hard redemption for scarred chef


Burnt (M). Director: John Wells. Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Daniel Brühl, Omar Sy, Alicia Vikander, Matthew Rhys, Emma Thompson. 100 minutes

Chopped and changed release dates tend not to bode well for a film. When The Weinstein Company cancelled a slate of early word-of-mouth screenings of Burnt in the US, it was easy to infer that they were worried said word of mouth would be lukewarm. The buzz was that the film's protagonist, brilliant but volatile chef Adam Jones (Cooper), was simply too unsympathetic to win audiences over to a story that sees him trying to clamber his way back from a substance-fuelled fall from grace. There is some truth to this, although, approached with low expectations, the film proves to be surprisingly engaging.

When we first meet Adam, he is shucking oysters in a Louisiana diner. Upon completion of this task of self-inflicted penance, he heads to London, rustles up a ragtag group of the city's best chefs, and sets about trying to reclaim his status as culinary god. Along the way he develops a quietly productive relationship with his therapist (Thompson), while enduring beatings from a couple of thugs to whom he owes money. Director Wells captures the kinetic energy of the kitchen, and the script doles out details of the professional highs and personal lows of Adam's previous life while charting his quest for renewal.

It's sufficiently diverting, but there are major missteps. A love story between Adam and saucier Helene (Miller) never quite hits the right note. This is in no small part due to an early encounter between the two, during which Adam publicly humiliates and physically assaults Helene over the heinous crime of mis-cooking a piece of fish. The encounter ends with Helene telling Adam to keep his hands off her and storming out — which is entirely appropriate. Yet clearly her justified indignation has its limits: in the very next scene she is shown madly rehearsing cooking the dish whose mangling sparked the incident.

Later, we are led to see that the single mother Helene has her own demons and brokenness, that give her a particular insight into Adam's vulnerability, and a shared space in which romance might grow. But the glossing over of Adam's earlier abuse reinforces the notion that creative genius somehow excuses arsehole behaviour. We see this, too, in the film's glib treatment of maître d' Tony (Brühl), whose homosexual infatuation with Adam is played for laughs, and flies in the face of Adam's generally unkind treatment of him. The film's theme of hard redemption is thus belied by its pleas for easy sympathy.

Despite this, and despite the film's first-world preoccupations, it must be said that Burnt does contain some effective, even poignant, human touches. Adam's kitchen dream-team includes a former colleague from Paris, Michel (Sy); his attempts to re-establish himself renew his rivalry with fellow chef Reece (Rhys). Both men hold grudges against Adam, and as the plot unfolds their responses to him reveal, in one case, profound mercy, and in the other, its opposite. These emerge surprisingly and authentically from the characters and their relationships. Such touches season what might otherwise be a pallid stew.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Burnt, John Wells, Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Daniel Brühl, Omar Sy, Alicia Vikander



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Existing comments

This review has both intrigued me and caused a reaction in me! I probably won't see it for a while, but I am instinctively annoyed: I don't like to see a-h_s triumph and I fear this happens in the film. I suspect that film-makers who make their "central" character a woman-humiliating narcissist - which Adam sounds like - must be also.

smk | 23 October 2015  

I was expecting the name Gordon Ramsay to appear at any moment, but it didn't. Surely there has to be a connexion somewhere?

Bill Venables | 24 October 2015  

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