Charisma on a shocking scale

Kevin Macdonald’s two-and-a-half-hour documentary about Bob Marley is too short. As the credits roll on Marley one must physically rouse oneself from a swoon of total capitulation. Your reviewer even found herself vocally irritated that so little had been resolved about its subject’s possible financial exploitation (an open issue in the film) and briefly considered some kind of sit-in until more footage was wheeled in. Any footage – just more.

Marley does not remotely sprawl, as films about musicians always do (even the immaculate Jazz on a Summer’s Day gets boring.) In this sense it is unique. As is the fact Macdonald does not use anyone in interview beyond Marley’s family or those directly involved with his music. No Bono or Geldof working up a sense of awed recognition when they wouldn’t know such poetry from a cabbage. Instead everything proceeds meltingly from an aerial shot of the Jamaican hills and valleys into a rapid first hour in which snaps of the pretty young Marley with neat crew-neck show him serenading beehived 1960s fans, interspersed with colleagues recalling his lack of deference to other people’s wishes (Marley: “I bring the ghetto uptown”).

Macdonald keeps the quotes and characters rushing by, and the content feels uncontainable, like water held in muslin. Sometimes the mood will pause and drop – Marley’s children sound sore, smart and sad – but Macdonald’s great tonal decision was to include much concert and rehearsal footage. Long, brilliant minutes watching Marley in some studio observing his own fingers moving up and down the guitar, his expression as though cut out of rock – the frown, the hard eyes, but somehow always slightly worried too, as though aware of some ever-nearing tide. Or Marley on stage at a free concert in Zimbabwe in 1980 not even conscious of the tear gas that has dispersed most of the audience, his wife and his fellow musicians, so locked is he in some inner isolation.

The scale of his charisma is shocking. No documentary I’ve seen – about Ali, Morrison, Kennedy, Lennon, or any of the other great charismatics – even approaches a subject at this freakish level. Bob Marley breached unknown frontiers of wattage.

In Elles, Juliette Binoche plays a journalist researching a piece about young female students prostituting themselves in Paris to pay for their education. The Krakow-born director Malgoska Szumowska’s film has ruffled feathers by suggesting women can both enter and emerge from this kind of life relatively unscathed, but in a week when even the unhysterical “hey it was only a job” author of Belle du Jour admitted testily to having been raped as a young woman it’s clear that no female could watch this film without on some level feeling alone and frightened.

Some of the sex scenes – extremely long and graphic – between client and teenager seem incongruously loving but there is a compelling sense of bitterness that does emerge by the end. One’s memory of these young actresses is of crazed fake smiles and blatant legs lounging in a strange exultant carelessness. The film’s dark mood emanates more from the Binoche who, now 48, is capable of anything. Specifically in Elles, long bouts of melancholia occasionally erupting into cantankerous fits. And yet she has such sweet wit in her. A scene in which she tries and fails – and fails again – to stop smoking a delicious, illicit cigarette on a balcony is a stand-out hoot.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen comes on as a bouncy entertainment, with Emily Blunt (juicy perfection) and Ewan McGregor trying to introduce 10,000 farmed salmon to a landscaped river in the southern Arabian peninsula on a government wheeze. Kristin Scott Thomas plays a ruthless press officer and does a familiar line in ornate sentences and saturnine wisdom. But the film (as much as anything a foolish love letter to the Middle East) struggles too hard to hold interest. The preachiness – about “faith” – gets so thick that the film completely loses all its early zingy lightness of touch.

Town of Runners would surely have benefited from a release a little closer to the Olympics. It’s a fantastically cool British documentary about two runners from Bekoji – a highland town in Ethiopia that has produced some of the world’s greatest long-distance runners including the paradisiacal Tirunesh Dibaba. As we follow the two young women as they train – both teenagers – you’re struck not by just their desire for fame but an equal longing to (contra the zeitgeist) strive for it. The film is incredibly beautiful. Scenes of men and women working in the fields of wheat look like a Renoir. Director and producing team Jerry Rothwell and Al Morrow – previously of the touching Heavy Load and tragic Deep Water – are two of the best talents in this country.

The sci-fi Lockout – about an interplanetary prison-break involving the violent and mentally ill and the US president’s daughter – isn’t a good movie but has a speedy slapstick nastiness and thankfully no eye-wateringly unsexy sex (although rape is continually and casually threatened).

This comes as a breather in a week of not just Elles, but also Beauty – an atmospheric downer about a repressed homosexual Afrikaner committing a staggeringly brutal sexual assault.

And also a bonk-heavy flick about the love drug Ecstasy, an imbecilic 16-years-after-the-fact adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s entertaining (but itself seven years after the fact) 1996 short story collection Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance. The movie’s low-level chat about uppers (boy, you wouldn’t give this movie a nickel for its small talk) does little to peddle Welsh’s undoubted brilliance. Still, the word is that his new novel – a prequel to Trainspotting called Skagboys – more-than-firmly reminds us, so I doubt he’ll much care about this movie.

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