It is no great surprise that Shane Meadows has, with This Is England, made something close to a masterpiece – he is a gifted film-maker with a distinctive personal vision. Remarkably, he has infused this story of a boy finding acceptance and a sense of belonging with a gang of skinheads with as much tenderness and warmth as with a visceral disgust at the extreme rightwing politics of the skinhead movement.
At the heart of the story, set in an unnamed Yorkshire town in the summer of 1983, is Shaun (a touching, impressively sustained performance from newcomer Thomas Turgoose), a 12-year-old boy on the cusp of adolescence whose life has been shattered by the death of his father in the previous year’s Falklands war. Bored at home and bullied at school, Shaun is adopted by an amiable, even lovable, racially tolerant gang of skins, and this peculiar, stand-in family enjoys something of an idyll until the return, after a spell inside, of the gang’s former leader Combo (Stephen Graham in blistering form). Combo’s view of the world has been warped by his time in jail: almost at once he begins preaching the gospel according to the National Front and demands that members of the motley crew either pledge allegiance to his new manifesto or simply leave the gang. This is not easy to watch, and the audience senses that the action is building to some kind of explosive climax, but Meadows and his impeccable cast ensure that the film scarcely strikes a false note throughout its taut running time. The result is a gripping, sometimes horrific film that deserves to be ranked alongside the very best work of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh.
The notably good-looking adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil is set largely in China in the mid-1920s, but we are left in no doubt as to the contemporary resonance of a film that has as its central theme the true motives underlying a western power’s supposedly benign meddling in a distant country’s domestic affairs. Walter and Kitty (Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, who also both served as producers) find themselves in China in 1925, in effect trapped in a chilly and not especially convenient marriage, the frostiness of which drives Kitty into the arms of a known lothario, the vice-consul Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber). In an act of redemption-cum-sado-masochism, Walter, a doctor, volunteers for a near-suicidal posting in a remote community that is equally threatened by an increasingly violent nationalism and a cholera epidemic. It’s an intelligently crafted piece, and as long as you can forgive the occasional lapses in the accents of the three leading players, a gripping one that ultimately presents a rather
uplifting view of the institution of marriage.
In Away from Her, the threat to the longstanding marriage of the two central characters, Fiona (Julie Christie) and Grant (Gordon Pinsent), a pair of ageing Canadian intellectuals, comes from within, specifically from within Fiona’s brain, which is succumbing to Alzheimer’s. With a haste that some may find indecent – she is in fact only mildly forgetful and almost endearingly eccentric – the pair agree that she needs to be packed off to a residential care home. There, the couple’s enforced separation is compounded by her growing relationship with another patient, Aubrey (a mute turn from Michael Murphy, who briefly shared screen time with Christie 30 years ago in Robert Altman’s Nashville). It’s a touch over-long, its tone at times portentous, and the vision of dementia is perhaps a little too lyrical, but this is a poignant film nonetheless.
It’s a vintage week for English icons of the 1960s now re-emerging in their sixties, with Christie as radiant as ever, Diana Rigg turning up as a spunky French nun in The Painted Veil and now an entire film devoted to one of that decade’s cult pop stars. For anyone who has fallen under the singer’s spell, whether in his early, middle or later periods, watching Scott Walker: 30 Century Man is a stirring, even moving experience. Walker, born Scott Engel, an Anglophile American, has been based in the UK since becoming a heart- throb pop star as one third of the Walker Brothers in the mid-1960s. But he was never satisfied with the life of a pop idol, indeed was disturbed by the adulation he received, and yearned to be a serious artist. This he achieved first through four self-titled solo albums – the fourth and least successful of which became one of the great cult records of the 1960s – and then through three albums of ever more esoteric material released in the past quarter of a century.
What is wonderful about the film, aside from the contributions from a couple of dozen celebrity admirers – members of Radiohead, David Bowie, Brian Eno, Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn and many others – is that Walker himself turns out not to be the J.D. Salinger of the pop world after all and is on hand to speak at length and, for all his earnestness in approaching his career, with some humour about his life and art.
One of the central characters in Away from Her offers another some grim reassurance by pointing out, in relation to sufferers of Alzheimer’s: “They’ve got short memories. That’s not always a bad thing.” It’s not a bad thing in relation to the remainder of this week’s releases.
Next is a fairly dismal adaptation of the Philip K. Dick story “The Golden Man“, which has the very Dickesque premise of a low-grade Vegas magician, Cris Johnson (Nicolas Cage), whose clairvoyant act is a convenient cover for the fact that he really is clairvoyant. Cris’s gift is sadly limited to an ability to see up to two minutes into his own future, the advantages of which are laid out in a well-conceived opening 20 minutes or so. But from there on in it’s pretty much downhill all the way as it becomes clear, through a story inevitably revolving around the
theft of some nuclear device by a bunch of Die Hard-style Euro-terrorists, that the writers have no real idea what to do with this highly promising conceit.
Typhoon is a very ordinary, although exceptionally loud, Korean thriller that seems to have some dubious aspirations to political sophistication, but also has a sub-007 plot that by coincidence revolves around the theft of very dirty nuclear material by some hell-bent North Korean pirates.