April 26, 2012 5:31 pm

Great moment is far from Close

This week’s films reviewed: ‘Albert Nobbs’, ‘Avengers Assemble’, ‘Damsels in Distress’, ‘African Cats’, ‘The Monk’, ‘Being Elmo’ and ‘Outside Bet’

At a certain point in their careers most stars go nuts over a certain part, long-fostering a project as it batters upwind of financiers and studios. Some actually make it to the screen (Al Pacino as Richard III) but most don’t (Jon Voight as Robin Hood, anyone?). So, to Glenn Close playing her beloved (and Oscar-nominated) Albert Nobbs – a woman whose bid to survive penury prompts her to disguise herself as a male waiter at a small hotel in 19th-century Dublin. Close first played the part – to acclaim, and largely in mime – on the stage in 1982 and drove through this screen adaptation of George Moore’s 1918 story, producing, and co-writing the script with Man Booker Prize winner John Banville.

Moore was not only fond of Zola but also something of an influence on James Joyce, and the film has a touch of Zola’s sorrow and Joyce’s sensualist leer. Banville’s finely worked prose, in which an awful lot always miraculously happens, seems to have found its way into the film’s direction too. The unspoken moments in a scene at the hotel’s Christmas fancy dress party are the best in the film: the nobs in emperor costumes accompanied by expensive tarts with their plump, nicely hosed thighs; the snowy Dublin street outside and all the drunkenness and flirtation and crimsoning at rude words within.

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Combined with Colombian director Rodrigo García’s famed warmth, and a torrent of spirit in the supporting cast (Aaron Johnson as a love rat is beautifully pained), the movie is sometimes charged with real tension and passion. And yet Close as Nobbs is an absence. We scarcely see past the actress’s extraordinarily phantasmagoric expression to locate Nobbs’s inner cries for freedom. If this is indeed the 65-year-old Close’s Great Moment then it’s an unfinished, limp one, and with all the strangled mentality of the Catholic Ireland of the day.

3 stars

Avengers Assemble brings cinema’s most profitable recent Marvel superheroes together and makes them play in a kind of lunatic studio sandbox. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans) and others must save the world from British actor Tom Hiddleston’s horn-hatted Loki and his armies of floating metal plesiosaurs (quite groovy as special effects go). Hiddleston appears at one point with ironed hair, stepping lightly down a staircase in a suit, giving off an air of grief and expensive education that calls to mind Jeremy Irons in his recent triumph Margin Call.

Although much has been made of Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne’s potential career struggle to escape their inescapable public schoolness (although Cumberbatch managed it in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), they are great presences, fine figures of men, lots going for them, can be trusted to do a bit of acting and all that – in short they are redefining the idea of the British film star. By which I mean, you can imagine any of them in Zulu. In fact, they all make me think happily of Stanley Baker. Besides, if Hiddleston and Cumberbatch are doing so well there is the (more thrilling) possibility that we might see a new Michael Caine and Sean Connery too.

Hiddleston recently commented (defensively) that superheroes provide a “unique canvas upon which our apocalyptic nightmares can be projected and played out …” As DC and Marvel dominate the cinematic landscape, let it not fall over our eyes that any of this stuff is Shakespeare, people. You’d never have caught Richard Burton coming out with that kind of thing.

3 stars

The urbane Whit Stillman returns after a 13-year hiatus with Damsels in Distress, a comedy about beautiful undergraduates at a US university inspired by his daughter. Determined to save their fellow students from depression and low standards, the girls go about innocently irritating everyone: they are idealist zombies, speaking in low, rapturous voices like those turned in a recent political revolution. The film is often on the verge of being incredibly funny, and there’s always the promise of an epiphany too, or layers of tragic political allegory – none of which really goes anywhere. Welcome back, Stillman.

3 stars

The Patrick Stewart-narrated Disney documentary African Cats follows a pride of lions and a cheetah mother with her cubs in Kenya. Of course the photography is second to none – no sense of hidden cameras here, more a feeling of cranes and on-set catering. It’s slick in the extreme, washed with gold so the lions glow like Aslans, and when the sun sets it is into a wild African pink, silhouetting lonely vultures in broken trees. But the desire to impose a Lion King-like narrative is so overweening (“Kali sees his chance to invade the Southern Kingdom!”) one begins to question the probity of the project. Were those two cheetahs cubs really picked off like mere tacos in the night by slavering hyenas? Is the comedy aardvark on some kind of retainer?

3 stars

Vincent Cassell is game in The Monk – a super-fruity adaptation of a gothic novel about a Spanish medieval mystic and his bosom-centric downfall. Nobody who sees the ageing Cassell (he’s 45) is likely to forget the wide-set eyes that now appear to be sliding off his head, giving him an atmosphere of unrivalled morbidity and melodrama. It’s a silly film – 1970s soft-porny – but not without a certain ominousness.

3 stars

Being Elmo looks at the life of Kevin Clash, one of the puppeteers on Sesame Street, whose kissy-huggy pink character Elmo is a global favourite. What a terrific bunch of guys the Muppets/Sesame Street creators are, not just spiritually, but technically. The puppets, hand sewn and sewn again so no seams appear, the drawers full of minutely stitched eyes and ears like the perfect physical articulation of a thousand small and amusing ideas.

3 stars

Outside Bet has Bob Hoskins and a gang of Wapping print workers buying a racehorse to lighten their mood during the 1986 strikes. This is pantomime, not film.

1 star

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