Life v choice in a hostile world

Image of Nigel Andrews

Pro-choice or pro-life? Unlike the abortion debate, good art and good cinema offer both. They create a living reality, then give the viewer the freedom to elect a viewpoint and ponder the wealth of responses.

They do so even in a film as terrifyingly focused as Cristian Mungiu’s Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days, depicting a society – Ceausescu’s Romania – that was pro-coercion and, where necessary, in the eyes of the state, pro-death. This tale of an illegal abortion, undertaken by an unmarried student (Laura Vasiliu) who knows that the consequences of giving “life” would be nearly as disastrous for her as her espousal of “choice”, if discovered, is shot like a mixture of documentary, suspense thriller and pitch-black tragicomedy.

To call Mungiu’s style “fly-on-the-wall” merely hints at its bulging-eyed, insect omniscience: a voyeurist vision that would be creepy were it not done with genius. Spying through doors or gazing unmercifully from the centre of seedy rooms, the camera records performances that seem no performances at all. Vasiliu and the even more palely vivid Anamaria Marinca, playing the friend who accompanies her to the hotel-tryst abortionist, could be living real lives while we are the appalled eavesdroppers.

Every twist of the story’s knife opens up new pain. The abortionist is a jaded butcher with practised patter, delivered sotto voce except when provoked by a lie or money-haggle. Then he screams: “I could eat you for breakfast!” Soon his price is raised to quickie sex with both girls. Soon after, Marinca must beat a brief, reluctant retreat to an obligatory party at her boyfriend’s family home. (This scene of mortified discomfort and jarring social cheer is worthy of Mike Leigh.) Then we are back with the bleeding victim, the cops in the lobby, the sense that every costly gain might be lost in a few seconds of misfortune or misjudgment.

The film, which won last year’s Cannes Golden Palm, has the texture of a waking nightmare and the power of a punch to the stomach. The images establish an unforgettable heraldry of the forlorn, from the tatty-comical fish tank in the girls’ dorm, with its photo-backdrop of sea depths, to the wilting rose in a vase that is the hotel room’s one gesture to décor. In the film’s middle section, the abortion dialogue spears down like acid rain: “You must remain absolutely still when the probe is inside you”; “Don’t throw the foetus in the toilet, whole or in pieces.” Pro-life? Yes. For this is a film about human beings wrestling to survive in a society that frowns on every assertion of will or convulsion of free spirit. Pro-choice? Yes. We, unlike the characters, can look at this tragedy in the contoured round, argue about it, learn from it, be moved by it, grow with it.

Charlie Wilson’s War – to plunge from the sublime to the sublunary – leaves too many questions unanswered, even unasked. The film is a rush to non-judgment. Hooray for Hollywood’s sudden interest in things political. (It must be an election year.) Brian De Palma’s Redacted and Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah, both about Iraq, will soon shake their brave and gory radicalism at UK audiences. But CWW is a star vehicle for Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.

Directed by mainstream liberal Mike Nichols, it is fawningly acquiescent in the adulation of its true-life hero, a congressman who masterminded the funding and co-ordinated the arms-supplying of America’s “covert war” against the Russians in Afghanistan. The adulation originated with the same-name book about Wilson by journalist George Crile.

The unaddressed questions multiply by the minute. Is a covert war actually a good thing? Would America do anything but vilify Russia or China if they waged covert wars against America (as they have done)? Shouldn’t the film have mentioned – just once – the name Osama bin Laden, a jihadist warrior who turned his empowerment, once Islam’s first foe was scattered, against the second foe, which happened to be America?

Instead, Hanks is a one-man charm offensive as the roguish Texan whose peccadilloes – womanising, drug-taking, hinted bribe-taking – melt to nothing when he marches, fearless, into the fiery oven of frontline geopolitics. This redneck-with-a-heart melts, himself, when he views the digitally multiplied tents of the dispossessed on the Afghan-Pakistan border. (Medium-distant shot of Hanks hand smearing away a Hanks tear.) Meanwhile Roberts, wasted on a role wasted in turn on her, plays a Texan fund-raiser who should have been played by an actress who could make sense of the character’s contradictions. This salon Boadicea is given no back story that might explain her weird combination of never-say-die party girl and globe-trekking ideologue.

Philip Seymour Hoffman gives hope of rescue, as the man on the CIA’s Afghan desk. His sly, roly-poly malice ’fesses up to say: OK, democracy’s frontiers are defended by the good, the bad and ugly, and not necessarily in that order. But Hoffman must keep stepping back to let Hanks and Roberts hog the limelight. Aaron West Wing Sorkin’s script has witty moments: Roberts: “Why is Congress saying one thing and doing another?”; Hanks: “Tradition, mostly.” But the film’s vision of a unique and important moment in US history – when one man shmoozed a superpower into a secret super-crusade – sees no further than to the near horizon of box-office gratification. And sometimes, an old Nichols trait, here supposedly legitimised by a womanising hero, it sees no further than to the nearest well-formed female rump swinging down a Washington corridor.

Second helpings of Philip Seymour Hoffman? Yes, please! He is the main reason to see Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, though he starts as the main reason not to. “Please, not that!” we cry at the film’s first shot – PSH’s full fleshy form having doggy-style sex with Marisa Tomei. But this fearless actor will expose a character’s everything. In Sidney Lumet’s bank- job-thriller-cum-dynastic-melodrama, he is a dope-taking, deep-in-debt accountant, who assigns penniless brother Ethan Hawke to the task of robbing an out-of-town mom-and-pop jewellery store. Only singularity here: the mom and pop are their own (Rosemary Harris, Albert Finney).

Everything, naturally, goes wrong. By the closing reel the clan’s members are all in hot pursuit of each other. Guns bark; pillows are plunged on defenceless faces; hospital life-support plugs are pulled. It is like the Oresteia gone to Long Island. No actor can close the gap more skilfully than Hoffman between hokum and high art. While Finney lumbers like a clockwork Lear, and Hawke has answered the “method acting in 48 hours or your money back” ads (money back, please), Hoffman finds fresh shadings in every moment. Each line of dialogue is turned over like a stone to find what wriggles beneath; affect not effect is the key to his performance, as to all great acting. He almost persuades us the film is the Aeschylean grand drama it tries so hard to be.

Dan in Real Life is lovable piffle from Hollywood’s comedy-for-all-ages department. When I hear the line, “it’s the only time the whole family can be together”, I start digging an escape tunnel. I foresee Steve Martin riding herd on 12 dozen adorable kids, while the audience learns last-reel lessons on how to grow up mature, well-mannered and nauseating. Steve Carell has a different surname but the same job, cosying his kids through a weekend at a mom-and-pop retreat in Rhode Island – yes, again, his mom and pop (Dianne Wiest, John Mahoney) – while falling for improbable passing Frenchwoman Juliette Binoche. It is all as predictable as Christmas, and about as yesterday.

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