Cinema reviews: Beyond the Hills, Shell, The Spirit of ’45 and more

Film reviewers and ex-alcoholics have this in common. At times they can find sobriety fulfilling, perhaps even thrilling. Accustomed to the fumes of imbecility – for the drinker liquor, for the film critic Bruce Willis movies (and dozens like them) – they discover a rapture in clarity, seriousness and the unadorned manifesting of human truth.

Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, the latest film from the Romanian director who won the Cannes Palme d’Or in 2007 with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, is austere beyond belief. Austere partly because it goes beyond belief: to the bare, forked, poignant humanity that exists in everyone when religion – or any other form of doctrinaire revelation – is removed or put in question as spiritual comfort raiment.

This is a truth-based story. A girl was robbed of life by the elders of a monastery seeking to cure her by exorcism and punishment; cure her of her – so perceived by them – hysterical emotional individualism. The Romanian press and public went into ferment; the priest and Mother Superior were jailed. In Beyond the Hills there is little hysteria, just an epic narrative unfolding, contour upon contour, like those hills of the title, which have divided Germany-working Alina (Cristina Flutur) from her former orphanage friend Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), now a novice nun, whom she returns to Romania to visit at the story’s start. Is Alina in love with her? She cleaves to her friend; shares her bed; dreams of a life together. She frets when Voichita steps from their cell in the dark hours to pray. Driven to sip from the same cup of belief – if only to share the same communion of souls – Alina starts to give away her possessions, to practise the recital of vows . . . 

Seen one way, Alina is unstable. Seen another, hers is the insanity of a sanity finding itself in a greater madness: that of disciplinarian mysticism. Mungiu directs each scene as if it is a film in its own right: long, sometimes belief-beggaring takes, some involving many characters, most shot with an unmoving camera. Editing for him is editorialising. He won’t make up our minds for us. We the audience must choose whether to believe the priest (Valeriu Andriuta), an honest, well-meaning, visibly troubled man – who does not intend the Alina-restraining wooden stretcher with cross-piece to resemble a prop from Calvary – or to believe the police inspector of the last scenes, rational yet at moments angrily righteous in his repudiation of Christian good intentions. “I’d rather go to hell than have you pray for me.”

Its muteness and impartiality are the film’s eloquence. Alina never labours to justify her dreams aloud. The priestly arguments are often mere bewilderment, we sense, dressed as faith or reason. Inside the monastery we watch the long, tormented wrestling of inarticulate souls. Outside, in the last scenes, is the majestic beauty of snowfall, a visitation beyond man and woman, beyond God. The film’s final shot goes straight to the story’s heart and the spectator’s. Amazing grace. Now at last we know what those words mean.

Scott Graham’s Shell, the Scottish writer-director’s first feature, is almost as powerfully, simply moving. His film, like Mungiu’s, seems sculpted from some ageless rock of steadfast, pure perception. Graham’s gaze fixes on a girl and father running an isolated petrol station in the Highlands. Words are few. Hints of incestuous attraction are several, in the spare, awkward, fumbled hugs. The girl (played with flickers of shy emotion that seem to express everything by Chloe Pirrie) parries the infatuation of two passing regulars, a forlorn, besotted fortysomething and a boy she succumbs to for sex but not for feeling.

As the father, Joseph Mawle, gnomic, palely aquiline, looks like some ghost twin of Daniel Day-Lewis. Graham and his South African cinematographer Yoliswa Gärtig waste no inch of their courageously wide screen. Profiles in giant close-up; a scenic lake amid the mountains below the petrol station; skies of molten lead or doomy gold; even the bedrooms with their plaintive, faded, historied wallpaper. Everything tells a tale or paints a mood. Might we have had fewer wandering deer, coquetting into view as symbols of solitude and vulnerability? Perhaps. But we are already in the spell of this strange and poignant film, in which tragedy grows from smallest seeds of foible and foreboding.

Ken Loach, warrior for the left, never gives up. In recent decades his combative old-school socialism, though losing ground as the world forsakes the discredited dream of communism, has refused to stop fighting. Now, emboldened by capitalism’s own hour of torment, he charges at us with a new documentary. Ah the egalitarian dawn that was 1945! Back then, at the end of a war, Britain voted in a Labour government and nationalised everything in sight. It seemed to make sense. Six years of patriotic teamwork and full employment fighting Hitler? Hadn’t that been good? Why turn back to the unequal, iniquitous ’30s?

For an hour, with its archive footage and old-timer interviews – ex-miners, ex-politicians, an old nurse remembering the birth-joys of the NHS – The Spirit of ’45 is almost touching. Then Ken jumps 35 years, lands with a thud in Thatcherism’s lap and starts to tell us where everything went wrong. Oh no, we groan, not that again. Not the already ancient litany of “curse Maggie and canonise the workers” . . .

It is amazing how leftwing folklore today has turned the miners’ strike into a heroic story of martyrdom, when anyone with a memory knows it was a story of King Arthur and the knights of Luddism and trade-union blackmail. (I love the way Loach dwells on police aggression and doesn’t spare a frame for the concrete block dropped by NUM protesters from a motorway bridge.) The film ends up as a tale told by an ideologue, full of sound and fury, of question-begging certitudes and the siege engines of self-righteousness.

Jim Carrey is a mirth monster in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, churning inventiveness from a gurning phiz. He has a fantastically funny cameo as a David Blaine takeoff – the life-endangering stunts done with the laser-eyed suavity of the truly deranged – opposite a Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi channelling Siegfried and Roy (sans tigers). The Steves play a pair of trad magicians in a Las Vegas also a-swim with Alan Arkin and James Gandolfini. Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley’s slyly effervescent script almost makes amends for their Horrible Bosses.

The Paperboy
is so bad it isn’t even good-bad. Do not go to this Deep South crime/sex/passion farrago expecting a kitsch-rich treat. Even with Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron and John Cusack providing five-star fully-leaded histrionics, it is engine seizure from start to finish. Spend your money on a second viewing of Beyond the Hills, or a refill of Shell.

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