Re-reading my notes scribbled in the dark during Archipelago, I find that the first note reads: “Are these twerps for real?” The English upper-middle-classness of the characters is initially gobsmacking. As in her first feature Unrelated, the talented writer-director Joanna Hogg homes in on a demographic barely ever covered by her compatriots, except Mike Leigh in mickey-taking mode and Hugh Grant doing “aren’t I a silly ass?”.
The Scilly Isles, aptly, are the film’s vacation setting. Mother (Kate Fahy), son Edward (Tom Hiddleston) and daughter Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) exchange crises and clipped vowels almost as if they have been washed ashore from a Terence Rattigan play. But don’t be put off. These people are real. And if the world can drool over a king’s stammer, we are surely ready for the dysfunctional Götterdammerung of marginally humbler persons, no less tragic for their toffee-nosedness.
Edward, preparing for a year’s voluntary service in Africa, is resented by Cynthia, who snipes at him and everyone. That includes the restaurant staff in a chillingly hilarious lunch scene, her complaints of undercooked guinea fowl crescendoing into a malediction on the whole holiday. There is something Beckettian about the way this trio is waiting for dad to arrive on the island. Why hasn’t this mysterious unseen patriarch come? Is he the chief purveyor of their blighted genes? His poor wife lives out her water-coloured life taking lessons from a painter. She is seldom photographed with light on her face; it would frighten away the aquatint ghost she is becoming.
Outside the weather gets greyer, the tensions get tenser, and the painter warbles on about the quest for abstraction. Marvellously there is no music. This allows the silences to say “Help!” at different pitches and volumes. Archipelago is a sad, funny, wise film. Don’t be deterred by the people’s class and accents. We are all twits and twerps and dupes of everyday tragedy when assailed by life’s mischievous misdirections.
Another Atlantic isle; another mother punished for getting away from it all. In Julie Taymor’s film of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, for “sea-changed” read “sex-changed”: Helen Mirren is Prospera, ruling her atoll with a will of iron and a steely coiffure as the Bard’s redemption drama – a text that can prove as vexed as the “Bermoothes” it inhabits – struggles for cogency of vision.
All that magic; all those effects; all that cross-cutting. You’d think the play was made for moviedom. Yet what undoes screen Tempests, Taymor’s even more than Jarman’s, Mazursky’s or Greenaway’s, is the attempt to make the metaphysical physical. “I can do real rocks and seas,” cries cinema. To which the right response is: “We don’t want real rocks and seas. We want the ones in our head, put there by Shakespeare.”
Unhappily we traipse through the lava’d tundras, the literal forests, the real ravines tumbled into by clowns (Russell Brand as Trinculo), until this great spirit-play squeals: “I’m a victim of actuality, get me out of here.” We are left with a fable bereft of the fabulous. And with Dame Helen, demonstrating how Shakespeare should be spoken in a production showing how it shouldn’t be enacted.
Client 9: the Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzeris a spanking documentary from Alex Gibney (Enron). Gibney doesn’t spank Spitzer, or not literally: that service would have been available from the escort girls who in 2008 ended the New York governorship of the “sheriff of Wall Street”. Instead, Gibney spanks the brokers and bankers who rejoiced at his downfall. No Spitzer meant no one to stand between them and greed, recklessness, meltdown.
The film lights up a complex story like a pinball machine. We follow each buzz, clang and moment of c*oloured incandescence. The last mainly come from financiers Hank Greenberg and Ken Langone, still nearly luminous with rage over Spitzer’s interventionist reign. Should their scandal-broken foe so meekly have left high office? In Italy he would still rule all he surveys. But the US has a long tradition of Puritanism and flagellation; which is where we came in...
“Criss cross” has been a favoured movie device ever since Strangers on a Train. Person A trespasses into Person B’s plot and vice versa. In Marc Evans’s Patagonia, a young Welsh couple touring Argentina visit the title land where their ancestors set up cottages and chapels, while a Welsh-Patagonian granny and her escort, a teenage Argentine, hit Wales to find the family farm known only from a fading sepia photo.
Evans made My Little Eye, a horror gem. Someone must have said: “Now you should make a Carlos Reygadas movie.” Very spacious, very beautiful, this film is also very vacant. Plot developments we see coming a mile off continue to come, very slowly. Atavistic nostalgia – the yearning for a family past the yearner never personally experienced – has to seem more vivid than this for us to believe in it, let alone to be swept up by it.
Unknown has stormed to the top of the US film charts. You are Liam Neeson, a biochemist jetting into Berlin for a conference. Your taxi crashes, along with your memory. Where are you? Who are you? There are holes in the plot, but the film skips over them. It exhilarates us with lithe liberties no less than with crack cameos. Bruno Ganz is wonderful as a rasping, liquorous private detective with wisdoms about amnesia (“We Germans are great at forgetting”), while suavely witty villain Frank Langella introduces himself by way of a voicemail message: “I’m having an out-of-office experience right now... ”
Johnny Depp voices a vainglorious, accident-prone chameleon in Rango. This digimated all-animal western borders on the inspired. I loved the opening scene with the hero, a wannabe actor, giving an onstage masterclass with some naff desert-island props. (“Victor, you were wooden,” he rebukes the palm tree). Then he walks into a desert town – actual – and becomes its sheriff. Malefactors include evil turtle Ned Beatty, cockney Gila monster Ray Winstone and a giant rattlesnake with bullet-firing rattle. Depp is in prodigious vocal form – Hunter S. Thompson meets Jack Sparrow meets Kermit the Frog – and the digital detailing, especially on Rango, (bulging frazzled eyes, fine-tuned twitches and gulps), is a joy.