Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.— Oscar Wilde.
This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.
Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.— Oscar Wilde.
This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.
If there was a word that could describe what makes director Thomas Clay’s Fanny Lye Deliver’d work on so many levels, unpredictable would come to mind. It is a fair description of a drama available to see on Curzon Home Cinema guided by its small but convincing ensemble of actors representing several generations of actors, including Charles Dance, Maxine Peake, Freddie Fox and Tanya Reynolds.
Set in Shropshire in 1657, Oliver Cromwell governs England with an iron-fist where the discovery of debauchery and heresy can lead to capital punishment for those brave enough to deliver such behaviour. It is that sort of behaviour committed by a young couple (Fox and Reynolds) that results in them fleeing their prior area and eventually coming across an isolated home inhabited by John Lye (Dance), a hulking and deeply religious patriarch of a family consisting of himself, his wife Fanny (Peake) and their young son.
Though starting on awkward territory upon discovery from breaking in to steal clothes to cover their initial nudity, Lye reluctantly allows the couple into his home for one night upon listening to the story they present, during which the couple see enough in him for the tyrant he is. As the reasons for the couple’s predicament becomes clearer, events transpire which offer Fanny a chance at either continuing her browbeaten existence or following their lead into breaking outside of conformity and showing what she could be.
The success of Fanny Lye Deliver’d stems from two things, the first being its unique ability to move brazenly from one bit of storytelling into something different, transforming what starts as a depiction of patriarchal society in the 17th century.
It becomes a home invasion storyline before waltzing into a darkly comic psychological erotica, and then leads up to a vicious third act with a fair share of bloody detail that in some instance, literally comes out from nowhere.
The third act is particular for showing not just how allegiances are changed at the drop of a hat but the sudden bouts of grim occurrence which make us believe anything is possible in the closing minutes, good or bad.
Its other strength comes from its set of characters who appear not as one-dimensional as their initial statuses lead us to believe.
Notable is the titular character played in atypical naturalistic style by the versatile Peake whose recent controversial Independent interview that somehow resulted in the sacking of frontbench Labour MP Rebecca Long-Bailey should not be seen as a distraction to what a marvellous film actress she can be, this sitting alongside Funny Cow to cement that.
Fanny’s journey is one of discovery and awakening, a characterisation that sees the meek individual accepting her husband’s religion-fuelled punishment towards her and their son for playful activity to whom we see her for at the end, but not before viewing the rollercoaster behaviour she undergoes on occasion.
Dance is very engaging to watch as the domineering patriarch whose status is evident but also gradually chopped down as the visitors quickly assert their dominance over him. The comparisons with Haneke’s Funny Games could be understood given the leg injury he endures, but in this case, it is the homeowner who is the unsympathetic type, although, as we discover, much to the film’s genius, it is not consistent.
Subversion is an adept contributor as in one scene where John becomes the victim of the treatment he had dished out earlier, a display of what happens when the power is taken from the powerful and those in possession are no longer possessed. The director makes it clear nothing is taken for granted.
Filmed back in 2016 but worth the wait, when it comes to what could make the list for the top films of the year, it will take something most impressive to knock this out. The best advice for anyone wanting to seek this out; expect the unexpected.
OUT OF FOURS STARS: ***1/2
Woody Allen has been the subject of debate since the Me Too movement awakened allegations of sexual molestation of his daughter, with stars declaring regret working for him and Amazon Studios reneging on a four-film deal with him leading to a court case. One of those films that was part of the deal, A Rainy Day in New York, did get made though and following releases around Europe, is now available to stream in the UK.
Gatsby (Timothy Chalamet) a poker-playing, care-free individual and girlfriend Ashleigh (Elle Fanning) are students at Yardley who travel to New York for the weekend so that she can interview a film director and he can take advantage by showing her around the cultural hotspots of the city. What should be a straightforward outing turns into a series of inadvertencies as each find themselves waylaid that cause chaos amongst their plans.
During their separate adventures, he finds himself acting on a film set bumping into Chan (Selena Gomez), the sister of an ex-girlfriend, desperately trying to void his aunt and uncle whilst inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art and visiting his brother who is reluctant to marry his fiancée for, of all things, her laugh.
Meanwhile, she ends up invited to a screening with the director (Liev Schreider) who turns out to be insecure and depressed over his film and travels around with the film’s writer (Jude Law) in pursuit of him, being caught in the middle when the writer discovers by chance his wife is cheating on him.
On paper, the film does look like a barrel of laughs with the involvement of Allen’s scribe and a talented cast, notably led by man-of-the-moment Chalamet who I’ve always seen as the new DiCaprio (who incidentally also once worked with Allen). Aficionados of his work will clearly recognise his style of using narration and depicting a culture-appreciating male at a crossroads in a city which looks as if Scorsese or the Safdies have never been to.
The issue with this is that whilst there are some moments of humour, the lack of hard laughs stop the comedy from progressing to levels that Allen has done in the past with ease. With his leads, Allen is trying to represent a new generation but this ensemble cast don’t succeed collectively with the material they’re given compared to past ensembles who have done their bit with natural flair, although the performances are certainly not bland.
Being his 48th feature film, inevitably there are going to be films from Allen that will not work. There are the likes of Sleeper, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Manhattan Murder Mystery and Midnight in Paris that represent his strongest and the likes of Love and Death, September, Celebrity and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion that represent his weaker works. Where this falls is somewhere leaning to the latter because it lacks the memorability in the key departments to stand on its own, although it is better than those films.
Quite often, the film drags on and scenes feel overlong, particularly in sequences that involve Gomez’s character who despite integral to the story actually slow the film down, though Gomez does try. A key part of the story involving Fanning’s encounter with an A-list dancer (Diego Luna) is also guilty of this the most to the point where the climactic moment of that storyline, though appreciative, feels too little, too late.
It’s enjoyable to watch sequences such as Law’s writer confronting his partner (Rebecca Hall) over her infidelity in the rain and Chalamet (eventually) realising why his brother can’t stand his fiancée’s laugh. It’s humour that may raise a smile but that is the best it can do and coupled with the pacing issues, a pace which suits most of Allen’s films fine, this one feels a bit chilly.
Whatever you believe in his private life, there is no question that Allen is one of the great American directors of the last 50 years based on the strength of those films that did work. A Rainy Day in New York may be above average, but is not successful enough to be in his top 20 films.
OUT OF FOUR STARS: **1/2
Icelandic director Grimur Hakonarson’s previous film Rams was such a strong and emotionally-charged work that it made my list of the top 50 films of the 2010s. One could understand then the pressure to make good of his follow-up, in this case The County, a seemingly against-all-odds account of the little people taking on the big guys, which may smell of familiarity but works on its own as a slice of sound Icelandic cinema.
Played with steel determination by Arndis Honn Egilsdottor, Inga is a dairy farmer in a northern Iceland village who with her husband Reynir ploughs all energy into keeping their farm going in spite of the heavy debts they have accumulated. Life is not made easier by the actions of the local co-operative who control the local economy with an iron fist, making life economically impossible for those who dare try and dodge their rates.
In one instance, a farmer fed up of having to pay for the overpriced supplies goes elsewhere for his goods but is blacklisted by the co-op, whose shop is key to the community but who take advantage by charging extortionate rates for the supplies the farmers require.
The film is also a sound depiction of storytelling even if it comes in second place in terms of entertainment value and dark humour that Rams delivered with more flair. Whereas that film finished on a feeling of unease and heartbreak, this one ends more optimistic by comparison, though that is by no means a failure on the film’s part and if anything a slight relief.
The director plays the film with a feeling of a typical Ken Loach film, depicting the crusade of a lone individual driven to near-ruin who decides to stand up and fight, taking on an establishment with no guarantee of which way it will end. It is also a presentation of how a community can be virtually held hostage by a ruthless industry who are willing to go to whatever lengths they can to sustain an operation in the face of potential opposition with the capital Reykjavik which is touched upon several times.
By having a modern-day woman in the central part of someone battling the establishment, the comparisons with Frances McDomand’s character from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri appear inevitable. But there is a reasonable depth in Egilsdootor whose capable performance moves from exhaustion and confusion to devastation, frustration and determination in the nick of time.
The film balances real drama such as Inga’s admitting to the her grown-up children about their father’s death with occasional moments of humour. Driven by the persistent visits of the co-operative’s henchman whose veiled threats are clear as day, the smiles come when a defiant Inga drives her milk truck to the co-op, soaking the building with its contents.
There is a suspenseful element to this, particularly during the climactic town hall sequence and what could come next either way, making for an unpredictability that helps this story with a familiar narrative succeed.
It may not be on the same level as Rams but there is a socio-economic story at heart that makes this another success story for its director whose presence is a welcome piece in Scandinavian cinema of today.
OUT OF FOUR STARS: ***
Pablo Larrain is one of the more interesting directors working in world cinema today with the likes of El Club and Neruda aiding his reputation and contributing to a hot streak of modern Chilean cinema. Here, his talent continues to shine with Ema, his third collaboration with Gael Garcia Bernal that is mainly guided by a solid lead performance from his leading lady, Mariana Di Girolamo.
Bernal and Girolamo portray Gaston and the eponymous Ema, a choreographer and reggaetón dancer whose marriage is driven to breaking point as a result of a life-altering decision to adopt a little boy from Colombia. We learn offscreen that he is already been handed back to the authorities due to his behavioural problems, particularly after an incident which resulted in the burning of Ema’s sister face, not the only incident he was involved in.
Between working on a dance project made fraught by the publicly tense relationship between the couple, Ema sets out an unorthodox plan to bring the boy back into their lives. As part of this, this includes arson of public property showing off the pyromania that arguably got her in this position coupled with a relentless display of sexual behaviour with men and women who appear unable to resist her, notably a couple whom she has a specific connection to.
Larrain presents the film with a style that takes some getting used to with the film occasionally looking more like a music video detailing various dancers, mainly Girolama who with her moves and appearance bears a resemblance to Dua Lipa. But once the film reverts back to storytelling, the focus of what’s going on in the lives of these characters is resumed quick enough that its fluidity is hardly dented.
There is an edginess at times with the scenario feeling like inspiration has been taken from Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk about Kevin; a family tested and torn apart as a result of the boy’s concerning behaviour. Though not related to him via blood, something close to hereditary is apparent with the implication that Ema’s pyromania may have led to the boy developing the same obsession. He is believed to have played innocently with matches whereas from the opening shot alone her enjoyment of burning items such as traffic lights and ATMs are clearly detailed, with her ‘hobby’ playing a part in the plot.
The bond complex of mother and son and the extinguishing of the bond is expressed where Gaston states that being betrayed by a mother is harder for the boy, although he believes both were to blame. The subsequent discussion between the two is just one of a set of tension-fuelled ones between the couple ending in Ema brutally referring to Gaston as an infertile pig, suggesting the failure to provide a child was the root cause for what led up to all this.
The film is largely about atonement and the desire to rectify the past by going to the lengths she does to get him back in her life demonstrates the strength the film has with its detailing of a mother’s duty. As she makes clear to Gaston after an excoriation from a frustrated social worker, she does what she wants and is in control despite what he may think.
Part of the success is down to how Larrain depicts tension between the two in detailing how their actions seem to follow them wherever they go, notably in their professional lives during a sequence where the troupe struggle to function thanks to snide comments and sides being picked over Gaston’s desire to remove Ema from it.
The same applies to her relationship with her sister when during a temperamental wig fitting she questions why her sister let the boy go even after what happened. She blames the fire and subsequent disfigurement of her sister on the innocence of him playing with matches but as an earlier disturbing shot in a freezer exposes, there is more to it than that, yet she persists with the plan of reunion.
Under Larrain’s direction, Girolama combines coldness, remorse and sexiness with a boundless energy reflective of her talents as both a dancer and actress. Sex is a weapon to her but as with John Wayne in The Searchers, she has to get her loved one back at whatever the price.
It may not be better than El Club or Neruda but on its own terms, its another victorious effort for its director who may have just given its lead actress a deserved knock at the door from Hollywood.
OUT OF FOUR STARS: ***
There is no doubt Tom Hardy is one of the most influential and talented British actors of his generation. But he is also one of those actors who is very much hit-and-miss as it seems for every good film he makes (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Warrior, Locke, The Revenant) there is a dud (This Means War, Lawless, Child 44, Legend) that dents his consistency. With his latest project, Capone, this falls into the latter with even himself proving to be more divisive as a performer than he usually is.
As he has done in the past with Charles Bronson and the Kray twins, Hardy tackles another real-life criminal, this time the infamous Chicago bootlegger in the final months of his life where his crime boss status is well and truly a thing of the past. Instead he is living in a Florida mansion which is gradually being stripped of its assets to pay his mounting debts and his health and mental state slowly deteriorating due to the neurosyphilis that contributed to his release from prison for tax evasion.
Instead of making millions and murdering his opponents as he demonstrated in his heyday, he is now reduced to a slurring, cigar-chomping, heavily-coughing, bed-defecating shadow of the past who can fall to the ground just from a slap to the face as an argument with his long-suffering wife Mae (Linda Cardellini) shows. We do get a glimpse of the little power he has left as he shows what an intimidating figure he still is to those who risk antagonising him via a verbal threat or a glare. We also get a series of hallucinatory sequences which remind us just how powerful this man once which ask if he thinks he is still.\Made by Josh Trask who made the enjoyable Chronic and crashed back to earth with his flop Fantastic Four reboot, this unusual biopic of focusing on a crime icon approaching the end turns out to not really be worth the time and effort, not good news for its guy at the helm. In addition, it is not helped by a straightforward performance from its lead that seems over-the-top and not even in an exciting way.
From the moment he first speaks, Hardy makes Capone go from sounding like Tom Waits gargling mouthwash to someone who would not sound out of place on an episode of South Park. Whilst his performances in Bronson and Legend were strong enough to overcome each film from sinking further, this one has the opposite effect, failing to give what comes off as a standard and tiresome biopic even a modest measure of usefulness through his acting. The make-up and the costumes designed to make Hardy ugly (a job indeed) may be commendable but the performance feels too repetitive and not written strongly enough to make this a performance that can sit well alongside other roles of villainous sorts he’s played.
The hallucinatory sequences are also fatal to the story as they seem like a lazy way of continuing the story and rather than just focusing on the present state of Capone, it carries on going back to these sort of sequences which make it worse. Notably a sequence where Capone goes into a cellar to observe a party celebrating him which eventually turns into a massacre with him standing amongst the bodies is so unwanted and offers nothing to a story which has already failed to ignite a sufficient interest from the outset.
Capone’s speech to a niece at a dinner table very early on is so bland as a way to kickstart the performance or even the film that one guesses correctly from that point that, apart from scenes of Capone defecating himself which generate quiet humour than any response, nothing memorable enough takes place.
Matt Dillon as a friend of Capone’s who in one scene takes him on a fishing trip is let down by where the direction takes his character while Kyle Maclachlan feels underused as Capone’s doctor which with more attention focused on could have at least improved the picture moderately.
Released straight onto video on demand instead of a planned theatrical release because of COVID-19, there feels a bit of a relief that it did so because it would have been frustrating to travel afar to watch it. It also feels that only it’s lead actor’s reputation may have got this made when it wasn’t really needed and the likelihood is that in ten years when looking at his portfolio, this will just be remembered as the film where Tom Hardy shit himself.
OUT OF FOUR STARS: **
This afternoon whilst browsing through what was trending on Twitter, I discovered the death of Michel Piccoli at the age of 94. It was only yesterday that I was thinking of one of his features, We Have a Pope, which made his passing all the more poignant. He established his presence as one of the leading figures of French cinema in a career that saw him directed by with the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and multiple times with Leos Carax and saw him star alongside a wide range of actors from Marcello Mastroianni, Brigitte Bardot, Romy Scheider, Denis Lavant, Juliette Binoche and John Malkovich. Here are six films from that come into mind when thinking of one of French cinema’s most influential actors. RIP Mr French Cinema.
Le Mepris (1963)
One of the finest works of Godard’s catalogue, Le Mepris saw Piccoli as the screenwriter working for Fritz Lang whilst married to Brigitte Bardot’s Camille. The film was also notable for its lengthy apartment sequence, a topsy-turvy of mood and expression as the sequence suggests the conclusion of their marriage. Referenced on the poster for the Cannes Film Festival in 2016, Piccoli’s ascent onto the Casa Malaparte is perhaps one of the most iconic shots in French cinema, coming straight after the shocking twist Godard pulls out from nowhere.
The Things of Life (1970)
In this flashback-driven piece by Claude Miller, Piccoli portrayed a man living a secret double life with his wife and mistress, his life literally flashing before his eyes as he is mortally injured in a car crash as a result of his impatience. Piccoli’s accident is presented in a range of slow-motion shots designed to present in painful detail what his behaviour has led to, with the crash presented in normal time afterwards, followed by him reflecting during what turn out to be his last minutes alive.
Les Noces Rogues (1973)
Under the direction of Claude Chabrol, this erotic thriller saw Piccoli play a man whose affair with a married woman and desire to be together played by Chabrol regular eventually leads to them murdering both their spouses. The lengths each of them seek to be together made for one of Chabrol’s juicier works and the characterisations from Piccoli and Audran were humane enough to the point where in some odd way, a level of sympathy is felt for them in the very last scene. Rarely do fictional killers garner such a reaction, (thankfully).
The Night is Young (1986)
In Leos Carax’s second feature, he employed Piccoli to star alongside a younger duo by the names of Juliette Binoche and Denis Lavant. This focused on the ambitious theft of a serum designed to cure an STD and saw him play the much older lover of Binoche who finds himself challenged for her affections by his protégé. A hybrid of surrealist adventure, this presented Piccoli with the chance to work with those crafting the Cinema du Look movement, demonstrating his ability to move successfully with the times. Carax would continue to hold him in high regard when he cast him in a supporting role for 2012’s ultra-surreal drama Holy Motors.
I’m Going Home (2001)
Directed by Portuguese veteran Manuel de Olivera, this focused on an actor whose life is turned upside down when his wife, daughter and son-in-law die in a car accident, leading to him taking in his grandson. Presenting the life of a well-known actor navigating through a traumatic time, the film offers a unique portrayal of dealing with grief, particularly when he randomly accepts a film role with John Malkovich portraying the director of the film-within-a-film. His subsequent decision at the end presents a justified ambiguity, but Piccoli’s restraint of the character suggests a wanting of ten minutes more with this character, such are the loose ends, but also the curiosity of his plight.
We Have a Pope (2011)
One of Piccoli’s last roles saw him take on the role of a newly-elected cardinal who upon being elected the role of Pope finds himself suffering from cold feet and flees to the streets of Italy, mixing with the ordinary folk. Directed by Nanni Moretti, this satirical take on the Catholic church was tailor-made for him, an actor in his twilight years capable of holding a movie together just as he had done in the decades prior and showing that well into his 80s, his presence was captivating as ever.
For many, Chris Hemsworth is best-known for portraying a certain iconic hammer-wielding Norse god in franchise fare where he has no trouble finding enormous audiences at box office but outside of Marvel, it’s a mixed picture. There have been successes like Snow White and the Huntsman and Rush, bombs like Blackhat and In the Heart of the Sea and modest performers like 12 Strong and Men in Black: International.
Now, likely noticing the success stars with a mixed box-office track have had doing so, Hemsworth has become the latest star to make the move to Netflix with Extraction, an imperfect but entertaining actioner that cements his status as one of the world’s leading action stars.
When Ovi (Rudhraksh Jaiswal) the teenage son of an imprisoned Mumbai drug lord is abducted by a rival and taken to Dhaka in Bangladesh, a large ransom is inevitably demanded for his release. When the son’s bodyguard Suja (Randeep Hooda) is threatened if Ovi is not returned safe, he hires Tyler Rake (Hemsworth for once playing one of his native), a mercenary whose reckless attitude is linked to a haunted past that is gradually revealed.
When Rake arrives with his team, he is taken alone to where Ovi is kept quickly enduring a one-man battle which for its brutality feels like a warm-up exercise compared to what comes after. However the extraction goes awry when most of his team are taken out, the mission is called off because of prevention of payment and the city is shut down to prevent Ovi’s escape. In spite of that, Rake chooses to protect Ovi and resume the extraction virtually by himself, battling against the pursuing bodyguard, corrupt officers and even child gangs on the way.
In making his directorial debut, Sam Hargrave employs the tactics of a brutal action thriller by pelting clichés such as emotionally-broken lead heroes taking out multiple amounts of grown villains who are reduced to mush within seconds in videogame-style brutality. Throw in a bunch of one-dimensional villains who revel in throwing children off roofs and threatening mutilation and a kidnap victim who practically grows up in less than two hours and it sounds like the hallmarks for another basic thriller depicting the endless-aged battle between good and evil.
In fact, it is. But there is an energy to it that makes this stand out as entertaining enough to excuse its unoriginality. Key to this is a 12-minute long take which starts with Rake and Ovi inside a vehicle and progresses inside and outside a residential block where fists, guns and even vehicles end up being used as weaponry, a virtuoso sequence that deserves plaudits for the ambition within its genre.
On a technical point of view, the film does peak then and it happens about a third of the way through but there is enough action before and after to satisfy action fans, including a climactic shoot-em-up action sequence on a bridge which the film’s non-linear opening sequence gives some clue to.
Even if the idea of a so-called white saviour narrative lingers in the mind of some, that should not be focused on because Rake’s role as a hero who without hesitation puts people over profit is believable as such that ultimately, who cares? And though it may make the tourist industry within Bangladesh appear edgy given its presentation as a crime-riddled palace of death and destruction, even that can be forgiven given that with the action genre, exaggeration is justified especially if one can sit back and engage with the feel of escapism.
The only new thing it is offering in regards to film history is that Hemsworth may have found a long-lasting side project of bloody action works designed solely for the adult crowd when not playing by contrast for the kids with his usual franchise. It’s also evidence that an action film of this style is as welcome in the world of streaming as it is in cinemas.
OUT OF FOUR STARS: **1/2
The MeToo movement has had such an impact on society in recent times that it appeared a matter of time before we would get films based on the harassment and bullying young women received by predatory men in power. Bombshell recently did so commendably with its retelling of the events that led to the downfall of Fox chief Roger Ailes. The same commendation however cannot be extended to The Assistant, an allegory of the Harvey Weinstein pattern that aims to provide viewers with an insight into working for a bullying and dubious movie executive.
Presented in a day-in-the-life structure, this focuses on Jane (Julia Garner) who takes on a job working as an assistant for an unseen movie mogul who we only here when he is dishing out abusive criticisms to those who appear to make mistakes. Patronised by her male colleagues who make her collect lunches and tending to phone calls from disgruntled individuals, her method is to accept that for a person in her profession, this is how it is done while on the way to the top, the lifestyle for one first in and last out.
When she notices a young student who appears to have been taken on by the mogul, she finds herself duty bound to present her concerns to the company’s HR personnel (Quiz’s Matthew Macfadyen) which leaves her with a moral dilemma.
Whilst the idea of a film that clearly references the practices and silence that led to MeToo is welcoming, aside from a couple of sequences notably the increasingly tense meeting between Garner and Macfayden, The Assistant is not engaging enough to warrant its existence.
Its biggest flaw comes from being too obvious with its intentions. Throughout the film, we get the impression that this is showing us what we likely suspect already and making the element of surprise void. Rather than expecting the unexpected, all we get is the expected and as a result it feels like possible real-life occurrences being composited with the end result being too dull with its allegorical intentions.
By structuring the film over one day, it fails because this particular story feels too vague and squashed together to the point where one believes that the day-in-the-life structure is too short and the short scenes involving the errands being performed feel much longer than they are.
I felt the film missed out on a chance to become a defining work for this subject and severely lacked the ‘epic’ feel that could have made this a work to be discussed about in years to come. A style in the vein of Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs biopic presenting three ever-changing events in the career of Jane is the sort of structure that should have been achieved. One gets the impression that the general ingredients of the film’s story could have been condensed into a shorter act that could have made part of the structure previously suggested.
Maybe in time that film will be made featuring another veiled character referencing Weinstein or the actual man himself being portrayed; the sort of film that may just right the wrong this film displays.
OUT OF FOUR STARS: **
The theme of loyalty is the driving force of Calm with Horses, a directorial debut within the crime thriller genre set in rural Ireland that sees the pairing of Cosmo Jarvis and Barry Keoghan.
Here Jarvis portrays an ex-boxer nicknamed Arm who works as a violent enforcer for a tough drug-dealing family operating in the west of Ireland, often seen at the side of one of his employers and best friend, Dymphna (Keoghan), a bleached-blonde thug seeking a reputation outside the shadow of his late father.
When we first see Arm, he is seen violently assaulting and robbing an individual in his home who as time progresses is revealed to have had a recent history with the family. Arm’s loyalty to his bosses is later tested when on an assignment, torn between his duty and his conscience, he makes a decision that might just come back to haunt him.
Alongside his professional involvement, his private life is observed as he acquaints himself with his ex-partner who is all too familiar with his career and attempts to engage with their autistic son who she wants to move down south to a specialist school, something he is reluctant to accept.
As a directorial debut, one thing that Nick Rowland brings with grittiness and the uncomforting atmosphere that is presented with conviction. Most of the characters are unlikeable and their actions corroborate that but here, it’s not about characterisation but about presentation and an insight into a world where once you’re in it, it’s practically impossible to get out of whether one wants to or not.
From the early scenes, we know we are in for an unrelenting ride as Arm batters a middle-aged man with brute force as his mother is forced to listen in a locked bedroom. But instead of violent conduct for supposed failure to repay debts as one imagines, the later twist suggests this is not an open-and-shut example of enforcement. What it really marks is the start of an ongoing storyline that becomes more intense and opens possibilities as the story progresses, leading up to a third act that includes a chilling pursuit sequence within the scenic countryside.
The sight of the Irish countryside is subverted with the beauty of the mountains and lakes contrasting with the violent activities of the criminal underworld, a symbol of supposed utopia being invaded by the dark side.
Jarvis, an American-born British actor of Armenian heritage playing with a convincing Irish accent alongside an Irish cast, is unrecognisable from his Lady Macbeth role as the buzz-sawed, hideous muscle whose underlying humane behaviour and depth prevent Arm coming across as just a one-dimensional brute.
Unpredictable is one way of describing him such as when he speaks with his ex-partner and their son’s horse trainer in a bar whilst in a boozed state not knowing what he might do. But ‘calm with horses’ is another as shown when he shows up uninvited at his son’s horse riding lesson and ends up trying it out himself, marking a rare moment of peace in his one-way-street life.
With him, violence is done because it’s business in contrast with Dymphna whose violent behaviour is triggered by a demand for respect such as when he glasses a young man in a public bar for having the audacity to refer to him by his first name and not Mr Devers. Keoghan disappears into his role as the sociopathic sort, continuing his flair for playing such roles as he did so chillingly in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Like the recent Misbehaviour, this had the unlucky timing of being released mere days before the Coronavirus outbreak closed cinemas nationwide but saw a lifeline with its premature release onto digital platforms such as Curzon Home Cinema.
With a convincing cast that also includes Niamh Algar as Arm’s despairing ex and Ned Dennehy as Dymphna’s vicious uncle, Calm with Horses is far from relaxing viewing but nonetheless a solid crime thriller worth renting with its director added to an expanding list of new British directors who spell good vibes for the industry in these unusual times.
OUT OF FOUR STARS: ***
Juliette Binoche is one of the most reliable actresses working in the world today, her reputation cemented with cross-generational roles in films such as Three Colours: Blue, Hidden and Let the Sunshine In amongst others. This status continues with a lead performance in Who You Think I Am, a somewhat timely psychological drama revolving around the mysterious behaviour of catfishing.
Binoche portrays Claire, a middle-aged professor divorced from a husband who left her for her niece and co-parenting her two sons. She engages in an affair with a younger man Ludovic of whom she stumbles upon the identity of his young roommate Alex (Francois Civil), which leads her to create a fake identity on Facebook under the name ‘Clara’ and engage him into a virtual friendship between the two, progressing into lust, hiding who she is.
Effectively coming alive with her newfound obsession, the idea that this cannot go on forever without at least a physical meeting suggests the pitfalls in her activity. With the seemingly-inevitable outing of the truth threatened with reveal, the plot thickens as the film’s interspersing of Claire’s visits to a psychologist (Nicole Garcia) are shown.
Binoche, in her mid-50s, shows she can continue to combine acting with sexiness as demonstrated when she engages in phone sex in her car with Alex or her steamy hotel tryst early on with Ludovic. Age is no boundary as director Safy Nebbou presents Binoche as a middle-aged woman desiring to remain sexually relevant in a younger woman’s world but with a hint of tragic desperation that her failed marriage may have motivated.
Like Let the Sunshine In, Binoche portrays someone whose desire for company is integral to the story, making this appear in some form what may have happened if Claire Denis chose to write that film as a psychological thriller.She is competent at making us buy into Claire as someone not one-dimensional. Her behaviour is morally wrong and not condonable but cruel is too strong a term for her, repressed rather.
Judging by the non-linear usage of the visits to the psychiatrist, we suspect this ruse would have had an outcome, guided by a second half providing a unique method of depicting what comes next with a bearable use of twists and turns for good measure.
The first half does take time to get involved with Binoche perhaps the only reason to keep going, the persistent imagery of Facebook messaging and phone conversation taking its time to elevate to something outside of catfish activity. One wonders what the outcome will be but the persistency in conversation does become long-winded and makes us impatient at times as we spend more time wondering what will be the result of this.
The second half is where the film is resuscitated with the storytelling becoming more adventurous and the allowance for moments that cause surprise as well as a modest sense of discomfort in a sequence where lies build upon lies. Some competent camerawork is also at hand in sequences where Claire observes Alex mere feet away from him in a train station, completely oblivious to her identity and ignorant of her looking at him, the desired effect achieved.
The pace is an issue for a time and the film’s final shot leaves room for questions but there is just about enough intrigue and delivery to qualify this is an imperfect but respectable look at a modern trickery, boosted by the involvement of its worthwhile lead.
OUT OF FOUR STARS: **1/2