September 6, 2012 5:28 pm

Sadness at the heart of Dredd

This week’s new film releases reviewed: ‘Dredd 3D’, ‘Anna Karenina’, ‘Lawless’, ‘Tabu’, ‘The Queen of Versailles’ and ‘Shut Up and Play the Hits’
Karl Urban as Dredd in ‘Dredd 3D’

Karl Urban as Dredd in ‘Dredd 3D’

Dredd 3D presents a violent future in which police have absolute supremacy: they can judge and execute on the spot. A practised cop, Dredd (Karl Urban) and a rookie (Olivia Thirlby) confront a ganglord (Lena Heady) who peddles a new drug – the soporific “slo-mo” – from a grim housing block. And that’s it. A film made with love for the simple, cool and assured cult genre classics such as Rollerball, Robocop and Escape from New York. If people go to an action film these days expecting pace and continuous pleasure from computer drawings, what they’ve been getting is plotting that’s completely tortuous. Condense for me, do, what happened in The Dark Knight Rises. Or in the recent Bourne reboot, which had to resort to a Mission: Impossible-style finale in order to shake off – like so many fleas – its story’s sinuous insanity. Dredd acts like an answer to this kind of pretentious plotting.

It’s also sometimes very beautiful, with unusually expressive and meaningful 3D. When Headey uses the drug in a bath, flinging the water with her hand towards you in a rain that seems to come down forever, you want to pluck each droplet from the space that the 3D has landed it in before you and examine it calmly in your hands – like Keanu Reeves with the stopped-in-their-tracks bullets in The Matrix. Not only are the effects what effects rarely are – effective and affecting – but the drug becomes the effects, and the effects become the plot. This is a first.

Although the three leads are unimprovable (especially the fatalistic Headey, with her Jacobeanishly green teeth), the great pivotal decision was to have Dredd himself played by a normal human being. He may be based on a character from a comic strip, but if you allow Dredd to be more Dirty Harry than Terminator then everything else slots into place. Make him a muscle-bound, cartoonish Vin Diesel or even Chris Hemsworth (as Thor) and then it follows that his motorbike must be huge and the guns must be even more huge, along with the explosions and everything else: it messes badly with the sense of scale.

Crucially Dredd has something absent from all recent action and science fiction films: sadness. How desperately The Dark Knight craved sadness! How deeply The Bourne Legacy wanted to be as sad as the moment in The Bourne Identity when Clive Owen died in that wintry, crow-filled French field. The slow-mo moments in Dredd – imagined by the screenwriter Alex Garland and realised by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle – aspire to the bluesy melancholy of the sequence when Joanna Cassidy as the doomed replicant Zhora goes crashing through the glass in Blade Runner: a moment that set the tone for all our hopes for science fiction on screen.

4 stars

There was happy talk in the months before Anna Karenina went into production that it was to be the big-budget adaptation everyone longs for: just imagine the wild excitement of watching a 19th-century Russian horse race with big money chucked at it. But rumoured funding chaos meant that director Joe Wright and adapter Tom Stoppard set it mostly instead in a fantasy theatre – albeit with extreme artistry. And however gorgeous (at one point the whole on-screen auditorium is head-lollingly filled, like Tarkovsky meets Renoir, with wild flowers), the film does not hope to have the impact of a long, expensive, straight adaptation of Tolstoy’s serialised realist masterpiece. There is a pervasive sense, as the theatre setting begins to pall, that all this is endless prologue, and that the story of the married St Petersburg beauty falling devastatingly in mutual love with an army officer has not yet really begun.

And yet Keira Knightley as Anna is supremely brilliant. Her appearances in the little-seen Last Night (do see this downbeat 2010 NYC romantic drama) and the (wrongly) unloved Never Let Me Go established her as dazzling. Her Anna is perfect: infuriating. Even her hair looks frazzled and she has a what-the-hell poise that is properly troubling. I could have watched her for days on end, just as I hope to watch her in the three-part Lord of the Rings-scale adaptation of AK that will one day be made. A $2bn adaptation. Three six-hour films. Too much? OK then, two nine-hour films. We’re about to sit through three films of The Hobbit, we can take it. Anna Karenina is the one genuine accessible and complete masterpiece we have. More than Moby-Dick or Ulysses or Proust – any idiot can see this is unsurpassed. Which means it needs to be adapted word for word. Put every paragraph, every sentence up there. This isn’t crappy old Dr Zhivago, which needed all the help David Lean could give it. AK is deep. Somebody fork out.

3 stars

Markedly less exciting, Lawless – a melodrama about Depression-era bootleggers – is thoroughly corrupt in its lip-smacking love of violence and has a script, written by Nick Cave, so transparent it verges on the comic.

1 star

And in Tabu the neighbours of an elderly woman in Lisbon uncover an episode in her early life in Africa. Long and pensive – preoccupied, even – there are times when you feel the whole thing is better listened to than watched. The softening, bathetic music and the complicated unfurlingness of the Portuguese language itself when spoken in an exotic half-whisper, have a power.

2 stars

In one week, two entertaining documentaries. The Queen of Versailles follows an American billionaire and his wife falling apart in the property crash. The forty-something Mrs Siegel, devoted mother of eight, sits wearing crystal-embossed bras surrounded by a super-depressed seventy-something husband (favourite movie: Shrek), calcifying dog poo and mooching reptiles (“Oh my God, the python has eaten the puppies”) and yet ultimately emerges as someone who belongs more in The Little House on the Prairie: ever cheerful, and triumphantly unimpeachable.

3 stars

As does the hero of Shut Up and Play the Hits (more concert film than documentary) which trails 48 hours with music entrepreneur James Murphy and his now defunct dance band, LCD Soundsystem. Surrounded by the most clichéd and craven kind of New York and UK hipsters, journos and schmoozers, Murphy remains adorably low-key, sincere and witty.

3 stars

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