Director Philip Koch
When you watch Picco you get the feeling that former-critic and one-time film
student Philip Koch knows his stuff. In his feature debut follow-up to the award-
winning short Lumen, Koch skilfully blends the theory and artful subtlety that
seems to have informed his Nouvelle Vagary from criticism to filmmaking.
Starting out like a German rendering of Audiard’s hit Un Prophète, the story
drops us into the claustrophobic jail hell of a youth detention centre where
we’re immediately introduced to our four leads. Chatting over the small table
centred in their room is Marc (Frederick Lau), the most vicious and unrelenting
in his tyranny and Andy (Martin Kiefer), the somewhat intellectual rebel who
finds it easier than most to express himself in terms of his ejection from civil
society. They excitedly discuss what they’ll do when they get out, often hinting at
a return to the life of crime, a theme the film deals with throughout. Also in the
cell is the depressive, sometimes suicidal Tommy (Joel Basman) and refusing to
join in the conversation is our antihero ‘picco’ (meaning newcomer), Kevin, who
soon gets wise to the fact that involvement in the debasement of prison life is
unavoidable and inevitably devastating.
We’re steadily introduced to the quiet violence of prison life in sequences
that drip with authenticity, afforded by the film’s setting in an actual disused
detention facility. At first, Kevin struggles to adapt to the confined life in the
borstal, psychologically and physically hectored by his cell-mates and the other
prisoners, he struggles through the first days; they watch on and laugh as he
cleans his teeth with a soiled brush; they steal his smokes; feign sympathy by
giving him incorrect answers in class; call him ‘faggot’, and so on.
The terror slowly builds. At regular intervals, long tracking shots follow our boys
one by one around the yard in moments that recall the impending doom of much
classic horror cinema, The Shining being one prime example. At the end of one of these steady-cam shots, Kevin finds refuge in another prisoner who finally gives
him a cigarette. He quickly becomes friends with the feeble-looking Juli, who is
just another victim of constant abuse. When the others find out Juli was picked
up for hustling, Kevin must choose between his forsaken friend or acceptance
into the main group, a process during which he is repeatedly asked: “Are you a
victim or what?” And this is the reality of the enclosed world that Koch reveals, a
world where you’re either a victim or a tormentor, but actually you’re both.
Through this narrative device Koch builds up more and more layers of meaning
in this seemingly straightforward story. The walled-in world of our inmates
comes to reflect the outer, and vice-versa, with Kevin coming to the elusive
realisation that individuals find themselves picked-on because every other
detainee is out only to protect and help himself. But he cannot stand by his
beliefs of dignity and selflessness, and this he realises when he fails Juli, doing
nothing when he is raped in the washroom. After this, Kevin thinks he can
become more assured in his values, we see him spurn the influence of his fellow
bullies, with occasional violent that bursts like an abscess, until finally, in the last
third of the film, he surrenders to his selfish survival instinct and becomes what
As the subject matter demands, Picco is difficult viewing. With echoes of the
same disturbing events that make up Alan Clarke’s work on similar subjects
(Scum?? and Made in Britain), you know that you’re in for a harrowing ending. And the final act is a long, unsettling one.
Tommy becomes the centre of a prolonged session of abuse, physical, sexual and
emotional, with his three cell-mates deciding to force him to suicide by hanging.
They cut him, beat him, violate him with a toilet brush, before tightening the
noose around his neck and baiting him into finishing it. But he refuses, forcing
one of the others to do it for him.
Despite its affecting conclusion, Picco is not merely another exercise in
disturbing storytelling; it has an original visual style that demonstrates Koch’s
eye for both a filmic reference and a unique shot of his own. In one particularly
effective visual quote, we see a marijuana-filled boot swinging from window to
window, conjuring Jean Genet’s Un Chant D’Amour. The cold greens and greys
that colour the many memorable shots work to invoke a permeating sense of
alienation in the boys’ isolation that survives through the film’s entirety. And
these subdued touches certainly make for a promising writer-director debut
coming out of Germany at a time when Hollywood-looking rom-coms and tepid
dramas seem to be order of the day, amongst some otherwise admirable work
such as Koch’s.
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu
Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Biutiful tells the harrowing story of Uxbal, a crook and single father, who tries to draw together the strands of his life as his own death approaches.
Uxbal (Javier Bardem) lives in a run-down neighbourhood of Barcelona with his two children. His estranged and bipolar wife Marambra (a fantastic Maricel Álvarez) flits in and out of their lives. Uxbal tries to supports them through his criminal dealings with Senegalese and Chinese gangsters and a construction racket with his seedy playboy brother Tito (Eduard Fernández). Uxbal also makes money through his ability to communicate with the dead and ease them into the afterlife.
When Uxbal is told that he has cancer and only months to live he seeks to reconcile with his wife and secure a future for his children. But a drugs bust, a tragic sweatshop accident and his wife’s volatility push Uxbal over the edge. It’s unclear whether he can find a suitable carer for his vulnerable children. And as his physical condition deteriorates, ghosts of the deceased start to haunt him.
Biutiful is certainly a bleak film that some may find difficult to watch. While most of the scenes are riveting and incredibly shot by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (a drugs bust, a binge at a strip club, a child’s birthday party), others seem excessively morbid. Uxbal’s physical deterioration from prostrate cancer – we see him urinating blood several times – makes for unpleasant viewing. A clandestine gay affair between Chinese gang-leader Hai (Taisheng Cheng) and one of his cohorts does little to advance the story and many may find its inclusion (and violent end) puzzling. There is little levity in this film and audiences may find the characters’ relentless suffering hard to bear.
Still, this is Iñárritu’s intensely personal meditation on life and death, which starts and ends with a quiet beauty. And Javier Bardem’s stunning performance anchors the film, perfectly capturing Uxbal’s descent into chaos and his eventual redemption. Biutiful is dark, frenetic, and intense but ultimately rewarding.
Director Rowan Joffe
The Surprise Film at previous London Film Festivals has ensured its hot ticket status, with big films making it worthy of the hype. In 2007 they gave us the Coen brothers’ adaptation of the bleak Cormac McCarthy novel No Country For Old Men. In 2008 it was the treat of Mickey Rourke as The Wrestler. And last year it was Capitalism: A Love Story. All right. That was a bit of step down but it wasn’t awful, just disappointing.
This year’s surprise was Brighton Rock, another adaptation of the much-celebrated Graham Greene novel, scripted and directed by The American’s Rowan Joffe, and updated to 1964 (the year in which the death penalty by hanging was abolished).
You can see the thinking behind such a choice: a British film, with an up-and-coming writer/director, funded by the BBC with the UK Film Council. Three cheers. Nevertheless, there’s a feeling caught somewhere between disheartening and hopeful when that ‘BBC Films’ title glows up on the screen.
The story follows doomed antihero Pinkie Brown (Riley), a young thug making his way in Brighton’s gangland underbelly and, after witnessing the murder of his mob boss in a chilling opening scene, charts his subsequent rise through the ranks. As he plots revenge on the man who knifed his chief, Pinkie falls ever deeper into the criminal underworld of the south, a world he is all too pleased to be a part of. He follows his soon-to-be victim, the hoodlum Hale (Harris), played by the only actor to have portrayed Ian Curtis (in 24 Hour Party People, 2002) other than Riley himself.
He takes cold vengeance under the pier, not knowing the kind of grief that will follow, unwittingly initiating warfare against the Colleoni (Serkis) clan. Pinkie is forced to cover his tracks and take care of any witnesses, one of which happens to be mousey tea waitress, Rose (Riseborough). It’s never made clear why he doesn’t kill her, considering he has ruthlessly murdered before and seems happy to do it otherwise. He ends up marrying her, something to do with a wife not having to testify against her husband, even though he hates her. This is one of the many clever set-pieces in which Pinkie reveals all to the audience, while he records an LP for Rose in a booth on the pier, while she waits outside watching him through the soundproof glass.
Then it all gets even worse for Pinkie and Rose.
Greene’s story is one told with a polished, confident filmic language often effusive in terms of its visuals, comparable to a novel where style has usurped substance: it is made up almost entirely of set-pieces, choreographed down to a tee and too rigid to actually tell the story without drawing attention to itself, in its style and in its trite script. Set pieces are linked together with clumpy exposition, laughable one-liners and half-hearted performances from all but the lead. The supporting cast, made up of big names like Helen Mirren, John Hurt and Andy Serkis, is decidedly weak and uninspired, giving the film an overall feeling of turgidity. We can see what they’re trying to do stylistically, reproducing elements of dense alienation synonymous with film-noir, a reference to the original, but it fails in any sense of exploring the amoral titular Catholics, Pinkie and Rose.
After an impressive turn in Corbijn’s Control, Riley has found it hard to emulate the intensity that the role of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis gave him in 2007. And he struggles here, and mostly because of his put-on voice that is hard to ignore, kind of like Christian Bale’s Batman. But at least Batman’s growl served a purpose. There seems to be no reason for the gremlin voice which, when combined with some of the shocking dialogue, is cringe worthy, with Riley sounding like something that crawled out from under the pier. But apart from the voice, Riley is watchable in a nuanced and often subtle performance, where a slight curl of the lip or a twitch, a clenched jaw or snarl, manage to give away what Pinkie is thinking.
But the rest of the acting, particularly from Helen Mirren and the other lead, Rose (Riseborough), is self-consciously melodramatic and so theatrically over-done that it often feels like we’re watching a moneyed version of the next flabby primetime drama the BBC is haemorrhaging.
The script is littered with some brutal lines from a Joffe who managed restraint in The American but lets loose here with lines like, “I’m a woman that’s afraid of nothing. Except the atom bomb of course” because yes, apart from the mods and the rockers, we nearly forgot we’re in the 60s. Or there’s: “You’re good and I’m bad. We were made for each other” which might actually be Greene’s line, but they could have excised that in the translation. Unfortunately there are even some hard-
to-not-chuckle-at lines concerning the stick of Brighton rock which, although it’s supposed to be a symbol of human nature, it actually turns out to be a bit of a larf.
To be fair, Joffe has managed a few redeeming shots, particularly the last shot of a crucifix that goes out of focus. Rose believes Pinkie’s love for her is real, even when she listens to the LP after suffering a kind of breakdown. The needle skips when it hits a scratch and we don’t know if Rose ever hears the truth recorded on the vinyl. The shot illuminates Rose in her delusion and reveals something about her blind faith. Fundamentally, this is a film about the new generation clashing with the old, symbolised by its temporal setting, with new values confronting old ones. But on the whole, the scenes are set up in such a way that too blatantly screams out: Look at us! We’re beautiful! Managing to avoid any subtlety that might let the audience work any allusion out for themselves.
But perhaps Brighton Rock’s biggest crime is that we actually can’t care about these characters or what happens to them. The film is riddled with clichés, bits of characters transplanted straight out of other films and reassembled into this one, ultimately failing to rise above its appearance of a nine o’ clock BBC drama with all of its indigestible dialogue.
Director Eyad Zahra
The Taqwacore Muslim punk movement was once the imagining of American writer Michael Muhammed Knight. But young Muslim Americans soon championed Knight’s 2003 fictional account of a bristling Islamic punk rock scene and started to form their own wildly popular bands. And thus Taqwacore was born.
This year director Eyad Zahra bring Knight’s seminal work to the screen in his gritty and energetic debut feature, The Taqwacores.
The story sees shy Pakistani-American engineering student, Yusuf (Bobby Naderi), move off-campus with an unconventional group of Muslims in Buffalo, New York. These include Indonesian stoner Fasiq (Ian Tran), Shi’a skater Amazing Ayyub (Volkan Eryaman), the moralistic Sunni Umar (Nav Mann), mohawked Sufi Jehangir (Dominic Rains) and burqa-clad feminist Rabeya (Noureen DeWulf). This disparate and conflicted bunch introduces Yusuf to the Taqwacore Islamic punk scene. As the housemates veer wildly from drug- and sex-fuelled parties to prayer, Yusuf starts to reexamine his views on faith.
Zahra’ first feature film is choppy and rough around the edges although this anarchic aesthetic is ultimately fitting. And it makes up for a lack of polish with spirited performances and some visually striking scenes. (The climactic scene of a riotous Taqwacore show had the audience talking long after the credits rolled.) Overall, this is an original take on cultural, religious and sexual identity in America – with a kick-ass punk soundtrack.
Recommending this film is not the easiest thing to do. You have those who already know and appreciate the prospect of a new Darren Aronofsky film, granted some of those fans fell off at The Fountain, his most personal and ambitious work, before being pulled back in by The Wrestler.
Then you have those yet to be convinced.
And the thing with his latest is, it will at once alienate part of the audience while at the same time dazzle the rest. But of course this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it’s surely not Aronofsky’s intention to simply make a film that everyone is going to love, to become the American Nolan; making dark, often subversive films that make big box office. (At least not this time round, as his next project is the follow-up to Hugh Jackman-produced X-Men Origins: Wolverine.)
But back to the film, which focuses on Nina (Portman) an obsessively committed ballerina in a New York City ballet company. She even dreams about her moment in the spotlight in the appropriately ominous introduction, the lead-in for a film that exists almost entirely in Nina’s mind. Through the first shots of her warming up, stretching in the early morning, we’re also entirely convinced of Portman’s commitment to the role. And the paranoia kicks in almost immediately as we watch her gradually disintegrate before our eyes. From the early scenes of her on the train, wearing her white scarf and looking into her faint reflection, we quickly get the sense of her vulnerability. As she rides the subway, she spots what she thinks is herself standing in an adjacent carriage. She is already beginning to fall apart, becoming a ghost under the pressure of her own mind.
She sees her own face looking back at her. Then in a flash it becomes her lookalike/double and newcomer to the company, Lilly (Kunis), all dressed in black. The mindfuck continues both literally and figuratively. She imagines (or does she?) an encounter with the sexually liberated Lilly, the Black Swan to her White. The atmosphere of unreality pervades, with Aronofsky often framing his actors trapped in the reflections of mirrors, mirrors which become significant by the end. At one point even a room of portraits, painted by Nina’s slightly twisted mother, begin screaming mad gibberish at her. It’s a relentless spiral downward as Nina and Lilly vie for the lead role in the troupe’s refreshed version of Swan Lake, led by magisterial director Thomas (Cassel), for whom they also compete.
But Nina has a problem, her dancing, like her mind before the fall, is too controlled. To lead the new season, she must be able to portray both the angelic White Swan and the cursed Black Swan.
Lilly offers to help. But Nina struggles, her rigid mind so inextricably linked to her disciplined body, unable to let go and too concerned with perfection. Thomas tells her: “Lose your self”. She does her best.
If you know the story of Swan Lake, then you know where this is going. After a little while you realise the film is itself an updated version of the classic ballet by Tchaikovsky. So it’s got that postmodern thing going on. Which is nice. But even if you don’t know your 19th Century Russian ballet, you can probably work it out. But crucially, it’s not a twist that Aronofsky is going for. He relishes the slow build to the inevitably bleak ending, another glorious slice of his “there’s no escape” doctrine. So it’s the journey that’s to be enjoyed. And enjoy it we do.
Thickly layered with the destructive themes of obsession, passion and ego, a film that will inevitably be labelled as ‘existential’ (though Aronofsky denounces the “existential humanist” label that seems to have landed on him), we have here a masterful piece of immersive cinema. The sound and the visuals conspire in morbid harmony, creating a grim, confusing and often horrifying study of Nina’s crumbling psyche. And it’s the fine work in post-production that draws all these elements together: well-conceived visual effects and a deep soundscape that confidently play with the audience’s nerves, served up with a booming score from long-time Aronofsky-collaborator Clint Mansell, along with oneiric imagery that becomes increasingly nightmarish as we’re drawn into the pressure-cooker world of ballet. Even the details down to costume design have been finely tuned, plenty of contrasting black-and-whites, continually getting at us with ideas of good and evil, darkness and light, simultaneously real and imagined.
And it’s done seemingly with ease. The human mind is familiar territory for Aronofsky, his films are generally set within it, his oeuvre predominantly exploring disintegration of the self through passion or obsession or addiction. His characters find freedom through death, either of the self or of the body, or both, seemingly saying that one cannot survive without the other. And Black Swan might be his magnum opus. Its last, lingering line is: “It was perfect”. He just might convince you.
Director Julian Schnabel
Julian Schnabel has more than impressed, actually he has excelled in his past features, all biopics of wildly varied personalities and very different nationalities. First there was his contemporary, and fellow New Yorker, Jean-Michel Basquiat, for whom he made 1996’s ebullient Basquiat. He followed up with an Oscar-nominated performance from Javier Bardem in the Cuban-set Reinaldo Arenas biography, Before Night Falls (2000), before picking up more Academy award nominations and the Best Director gong at Cannes with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007).
Now Schnabel has transported his considerable skill to the Middle East. And unfortunately, it is with little or no impact. Too poorly informed to be a serious political film, too aware of its own possible significance in having any impact, and too clumsily written to be a comprehensive biography, Miral is simply a disappointment for what could have been a great cinematic statement. It’s like Schnabel finally wants to claim an Oscar for himself, by making a film that looks brave but only on the surface.
Miral doesn’t just try to tell the story of its titular heroine, but also Miral’s biological mother, Nadia (Yasmine Elmasri), a would-be terrorist in prison, Fatima (Ruba Bial), and Miral’s unofficially adopted mother, Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass). The latter is the core of the film, we start and end with her, and she is the reference point to all of the passing characters throughout.
We begin with Hind’s funeral in 1994 then cut back to 1948 in a kind of a how-it-all-began deal. Hind is walking to work and amidst gunfire and settling dust in the aftermath of the Deir Yassin massacre, she comes across 55 stranded orphans in the streets. She takes them to her mother’s home and feeds them, clothes them and eventually begins educating them. Over the years, this 55 turns to 2,000 until she has a bona fide school for girls, holding strong to a policy of non-participation in political struggle (in any overt way) and a complete commitment to “her children”.
Yes. This is an admirable story.
But Schnabel and Rula Jebreal, writer of the novel and the film, get muddled trying to mix the heavy story and politics, always stalling at a shallow depth on both. Schnabel freely admits he is no expert, admits he is not even trying to be. So he wants to use up the situation for an artistic experience, OK.
Perhaps you don’t agree with that. Maybe he’s using the situation to get his hands on some awards. It’s hard to jump to that conclusion, but it looks that way. The politics are watered down, Schnabel and Jebreal seem to have redacted anything too controversial, anything that doesn’t fit in with this kind of fashionable social awareness where only the most superficial details are left in, the crimes of the Israeli government left without analysis, without debate, and only mentioned in clumsily didactic exposition.
As the movie unfolds we’re also offered a backstory for Fatima, the nurse turned activist, who plants a bomb in an Israeli cinema during a showing of Polanski’s Repulsion. Schnabel seems prepared to confront and condemn the thought-process behind an attack on innocent life by Palestinians on Israelis, but the other way round we rarely see the violence, Israelis only demolish buildings, imprison and then release. The murder of civilians seems far away and not immediate, contrary to
the actuality of the situation.
In the Palestine that Schnabel creates, the Israeli army is not quite the belligerent occupying force that history has shown them to be. There are snippets of this poking through, some actual footage is cut in with the gloss, but it is ambivalent and afraid to come out and say what it is and say it straight. At the rushed conclusion we are told that the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993 were a serious hope for an end to the atrocities. Perhaps this would have been an acceptable comment if the film was made in 1993. With the gift of hindsight Schnabel should or could have plugged the depths of this event for what it really was, another step in further dispossessing and systematically destroying the people of Palestine and as Israeli historian Ilan Pappe says: “to corral Palestinians in South African-style bantustans”. Instead the film laments that the accords have “not yet been honoured”.
Coinciding with the films political naivety, Schnabel seems also to have run out of ideas stylistically. The opening titles are atrocious, even amateurish. Then there’s the camerawork. It seems to try and show the possibility of hope, of freedom in its freeform style, often handheld and spinning looking up at blue sky or the trees, or whatever. But the whole experience is unconvincing, even insincere. These flourishes that made his previous films refreshing and even remarkable, are used to little or no effect here. Ultimately, the photography, mixed with a clumpy script and a removal of the US role in proceedings, amounts to what seems a poor understanding of the sheer desperation of the oppressed people in Palestine.
Director Gillian Wearing
Gillian Wearing has a history of getting people on camera and making them open up. In the 1990s she did it with a series of videos asking people to “Confess all on video”, people who responded to an advert she placed in Time Out. Now she is doing it with a group of people, the focus still on individuals and their pasts, but in feature length documentary form. The result is an anaemic piece of work, simultaneously annoying and manipulative.
The premise for Wearing’s debut feature is another advert placed in publications all over the country. Wearing put out another advert something to the tune of: “Calling anyone who wants to appear in a film, contact me”. And Self Made begins somewhat promisingly with a long tracking shot of a disgruntled gentleman seemingly on the edge of a breakdown. We find out more about him later. This is followed by a definition of method acting which flashes up to inform us on what is going on. We then meet a method acting coach, the enthusiastic and slightly new-agey Sam Rumbelow. We are also introduced to a group of seven people, all, we are told, with interesting or affecting back stories. And this is where the trouble with Wearing’s documentary begins.
As it unfolds, the group go through a kind of therapy in the method acting class, under the harsh lights of some nondescript warehouse. Here they act out scenes somehow related to their lives, their worries and their pasts. They are then given the opportunity to film their ‘end scenes’, which are professionally shot, with additional actors and an entire crew to produce a glossy, stylish bit of film. For now we will ignore the fact that none of these really work (with a few of the candidates even cut out of the film altogether, and without explanation).
Unfortunately, Self Made is the kind of insipid documentary filmmaking that seems to say that people are not ‘real’, ‘human’ or worthy of compassion until some artist puts a camera on them and makes them discuss their distressing experiences, then making them cry on screen. Is this for our entertainment? Because they certainly don’t seem to be coping any better with their problems by the end credits.
Wearing also seems to be saying that what we watch is immediately ‘good acting’ when someone manages to shed some tears. To cry is not to act. Are we to think that a distraught person releasing a solemn tear is art? Or even entertainment? Or perhaps this is Wearing’s point, to point out the mixture of reality and art for this reason; the mere ability to well up when the director shouts ‘action’. This might be true if the film did not carry with it this swagger of arrogance and self-righteousness.
The first of these ‘end scenes’ to be shown sums up this problem. A girl in her early-twenties drones out some Shakespeare (we are supposed to be impressed she remembers all the lines): King Lear on a moodily lit stage sat around a dinner table, with some hammy fellows supporting her. The scene wears on, until we finally reach that moment. The teardrop comes and rolls down her cheek. Bravo.
Other end scenes involve a seriously disturbed but discerning and genial guy called Asheq, who decides his scene should be about kicking a pregnant woman in the gut. Then there’s the one with the cringe worthy depiction of Mussolini, hanging upside down after he’s been executed. His scene lasts for about three seconds. And that is it. Oh, and the guy who used to get bullied. Now he is a belligerent and bitter man-boy. Then there’s another one with the middle-aged woman, Lesley, who actually comes to be the heart of the whole documentary, but her film also fails to blag any emotion. Who knows what happened to the others. Must have been especially tasteless.
The problem is not that we don’t feel for these people, of course we do, but that Wearing tries to manipulate us into a reaction with such cheap trickery. So just look out for those ads asking you to “confess all on video”.
Taking his cues equally from both classic European literature and Continental cinema, Anton Corbijn delivers his latest, The American, a film certain to divide audiences down the middle.
Our antihero Jack/Edward/Mr. Butterfly (George Clooney) fills almost every frame of film and it begins no differently. We’re introduced to him cold, with no background information apart from the two tattoos he sports on his arm (a military insignia reading: Ex Gladio Equitas) and his back (a butterfly), as he sits post-coitus with his swooning Swedish blonde. They decide to go for a walk. We know it will not end well.
From this point on much of what develops in The American is predictable, to the point where most of the audience is picking out what is going to happen and how, right up to any twists and turns Rowan Joffe’s adapted script tries to throw at them. It feels as if the familiar story is actually a distraction from the feeling Corbijn tries to create. But to dismiss the film at this point seems to indeed miss it completely.
Upon further retrospection, it seems this is Corbijn’s intention. He seems to want to send the film along this direct line, getting across The American’s inescapable conclusion before it happens, to let us know first that it will happen. It may be argued that there is a slightly superficial undercurrent beneath the impeccable cinematography, photography that you would come to expect from the team that shot 2007’s Control. It may also be argued The American is low on feeling or devoid of emotion. And this is where existentially flavoured literature from the likes of Camus, Frisch and Moravia mixes itself in.
Jack (we’ll call him Jack) is the fastidious assassin, as well as a custom weapons fabricator. He informs his contact Pavel (Leysen) that his next job will be his last; his violent past is beginning to strangle his future, and increasingly haunts his waking hours as he stalks around Europe. As he leaves a rendezvous with his untrustworthy handler, during which we get a Limits of Control-esque feel, we watch Jack disappear into hiding in the Italian countryside amongst the Abruzzo mountains. But unlike Jarmusch’s film, abortively rich in its attempt at many different ideas, The American is genuinely rich in just its one.
Clooney comes to personify an update of the literary icon Meursault, the antihero of Albert Camus’ The Outsider (L’Etranger). Jack is given one last job. He begins to take care of it. As an outsider, when he arrives in the village he decides to settle in, he is harangued by the local priest, Benedetto (Bonacelli), setting up a number of scenes pitting man against religion. But Jack sticks to his guns (sorry) in face of challenges from the platitudinous preacher. He is unwavering in his philosophy, obsessed with the gutter truth of his existence, and he accepts his fate, up until the final moment even uncovering Benedetto’s hypocrisy along the way.
There are a number of scenes where Bonacelli’s preacher seems to spout lines a little too laboured, feeling too overworked in their profundity, saying things like: “You’re American. You think you can escape history. You live for the present.” Often they sit opposite one another in moments that pit their two ideologies against each other. But the conversations are nonetheless packed with layers of meaning, as are all the actions, to the point where each event and development of the plot compound all the ramifications previous to that point, making it a film dripping with allusions and double meanings as its impact quietly builds.
He begins to build a gun for a client, the tight-lipped Mathilde (Reuten). We begin to understand the real purpose of the gun that he builds, probably at the same point as Jack does, and we make it with him, watching him carve and shape the mechanisms for the weapon that he knows will at some point have him in its sights. Perhaps his whole life, or at least his whole career, he has slowly been manufacturing the gun that will kill him. His gun, like his actions, fits a predetermined purpose and it is efficient filmmaking that creates it, and an efficient film in its delivery of ideas.
Throughout the film several characters refer to our man Jack as Mr Butterfly, likening him to a rare, endangered species (a metaphor that needs no explanation). Layers of symbolism are piled on for repeated viewings. And though you know everything coming the first time round, perhaps like Antonioni’s The Passenger, you realise the slow and deliberate pacing is intentional, that there is no escape from the isolation and the alienation; there is no way out of quiet, inevitable death.
Director Mark Romanek
In 1952, the breakthrough came. All disease and illness were cured, all disability wiped out. By the 1960s, age expectancy reached over 100 years.
This is the opener for Never Let Me Go, a love-triangular pseudo-sci-fi-drama in which mankind undergoes the dystopian treatment in an alternative history, where science and technology have made the simultaneous leap to put an end to all (physical) human suffering. This, we are shown, is achieved through harvesting body parts and vital organs, taken from mild-mannered clones, to transplant into and onto the broken bodies of the higher strata of society. By now you could be tempted to think Brave New World or possibly Gattaca, and ponder that we might already be well-acquainted with this plot.
Or at least we have seen these ideas before, and more proficiently explored. And that’s the main issue with Romanek’s latest, adapted for the screen by Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later…, Sunshine) from the cult-ish 2005 Kazuo Ishiguro novel of the same name, though the premise is of course ripe with possibilities; questions of ethics and what it means to be ‘human’, questions of science and destiny, questions of soul and suffering and so on and so forth. Yet what we are presented with is a semi-complete dystopian vision, a world half-rendered by Garland’s script, and a sequence of scenes ironically devoid of any human emotion or completion of its big concepts.
The film opens in the 1990s with our 29-year-old heroine, Kathy (Mulligan) the carer, over-seeing a ‘donor’ ‘donating’. She delivers a solemn voiceover filling us in on her dulled recollections. We flash back to 1978, a twee-looking boarding school where the children talk through their noses and their starchy uniforms stifle free movement and free thinking. Introduced are Kathy’s classmates Tommy (Garfield), who she quickly falls in love with, and Ruth (a sedate Keira Knightley), her then-best friend. As we learn more about life at Hailsham school, a new teacher enters the fray and begins to undermine the control held over the children’s pre-determined fate. We quickly begin to realise that there is a darker side to the apparently parentless joy of regimented school life under Miss Emily (Rampling) with episodes showing playground bullying, their inability to think outside their boundaries and chorus-singing of mindwash anthems. But when the mystery of their purpose evaporates (after the first 40 or so minutes) we are left with little reason to hang on, and this is seemingly what the three protagonists are thinking, as they fail to kick up a fuss or do the human thing and rebel. But Ruth and Tommy make a go of it while they’re young, destroying Kathy in the process, leaving her to watch them from afar as they share their first kiss.
When the film jumps forward to 1985, not much has changed. Where the three used to inhabit a school they now live in ‘The Cottages’. They sit around with blank faces, impersonate characters from American television, go on day trips and exist in a kind of ennui on their next step to ‘completion’ (Ishiguro’s euphemism for death). On one of these road trips Ruth glimpses what she thinks might be her ‘possible’, the person for whom her organs and limbs are supposed to be harvested for, yet this event is passed over without much thought or delicacy. The subject of the wider society is also missed, as a short scene in which the trio shyly orders some food at a café merely demonstrates another example of the film’s self-imposed limits.
Frustratingly, the clones simply accept their fates without displaying any trace of humanity; they sink into misery and merely acquiesce to their destinies. And this seems more of a defect on the film’s part rather than an intentional comment on human nature. So, unremarkably, throughout the three decades that the film spans, the three friends experience almost no progression or development; they are static, which is not aided by the type of wispy acting on display from the three leads, and who could only fall flat as a result of the flaccid dialogue anyway.
Also a tad irritating is that Kathy, Tommy and Ruth talk of nothing but their situation, occasionally of ‘love’ but without ever showing it or saying what they seem to think it is (this being another opportunity to delve into the aspects of perceived and actual love) but again, this is brushed away, glossed over with stereotypical reflections. Yet the most implausible aspect must be the fact that the world they live in does not seemed to have changed at all, apart from people living longer. Perhaps this is the film’s intention, to reveal only the singular perspective of Kathy. Even so, it makes the film feel somehow incomplete. And Kathy’s world that Romanek and Garland have recreated is empty and bereft of humanity, the core of Ishiguro’s admittedly overrated book, in a place where man’s body is elevated in meaning and significance in light of his predicament, making it all the more ridiculous that these three fail to deal with anything, waiting years to find out the details of their fate.
Never Let Me Go also suffers from another massive disconnect throughout; a disconnect between its style and the content of its script. Warm hues carry an incongruously somber tone, giving an unintentional sense of discomfort, the sign of a project that does not know its purpose or its meaning. And in an attempt to wrench in some feeling to the one-note script work, the soundtrack plays out melodramatic strings and trite crescendos, telling you when and what to feel, when perhaps silence would say much more than the manufactured emotion.
And to compound these inconsistencies, Romanek seems to possess the extraordinary talent of finding the most conventional and tediously orthodox shot possible for every moment, with the film evidently too busy getting on and telling its tale to get any ideas across visually or verbally, leaving the possibility that perhaps the only cliché avoided here was to not save the twist for the end.
When the inevitable conclusion does arrive, you’re left trying to pick out the pieces that might have meant something. Is it all some treatise on the ramifications of stem-cell research? Who knows. Is it a religious bit of work, blending in (accepted) notions of the soul against man’s concept of law? Probably not. An intriguing concept that at first seems interesting is instead taken for a ride where only the end is sought, and not the journey. So by the time we hear the last grating after-thought of a voiceover trying to tie things up nicely, with too many aspects of the story taken for granted and with social context forgotten, the whole thing sounds like A-level metaphysics, bordering on self-parody: “We all complete. And somehow it never feels quite long enough”.