Film releases: February 4

It’s back and this time it’s personal. Safely buried under 70 years of cretaceous history, Graham Greene’s 1939 novel Brighton Rock was one thing. So was the 1947 Boulting Brothers film version with Richard Attenborough as Pinkie, the gangland thug who marries a lovelorn girl to prevent her testifying in a murder case. More than half a century ago, both book and movie seemed at home in a Britain ravaged by war or postwar anxieties, by unequal wealth, by the life lotteries of pre-socialism.

But will we still need the story – will it still feed us artistically – if the year is changed to 1964? For me, first-time feature director Rowan Joffe has updated cleverly. I knew Brighton in 1964. (Disclosure time). I and pals from a nearby high-Anglican boarding school went there on days off, taking our perishable religiosity – like that of Catholic Pinkie and his Rose – to a place where you could smell the chancers and the petty ganglanders, along with the fish and chips and the tide. Add to that: 1964 was the year of the Mods and Rockers biker riots.

Even with many scenes shot in nearby Eastbourne (today a closer approximation to bygone Brighton), the setting proves as spellbinding here – its seediness ironised by colour – as in the Boultings’ black and white. The new film works the grime into the wallpaper, the grease into the gangster quiffs, the tawdriness into the seafront promenades. I liked, too, the symphonic oomph of sound and image out on the beach and around the pier (under which the beatings and murders happen). Skies rinsed with sickly light. Choral music stirring on the soundtrack like some contaminated Carmina Burana.

A few Greene purists have cried woe, but Greene would surely have loved it. Sam Riley (Control) is a perfect, creepy Pinkie. He looks like an underage bank clerk: T.S. Eliot crossed with Leonardo DiCaprio. Where Richard Attenborough was nasty but human, Riley’s protagonist is meta-human, a machine for messing up lives. Supporting characters made idiomatic by defect – John Hurt as a mouthy old con, Helen Mirren wonderful as lipsticked Ida, hotel waitress Rose’s busybody boss – move across Pinkie’s sight lines inviting destruction. Andrea Riseborough’s Rose is a touching, blurry-featured nymph, a girl who hopes love is catching and that hers will finally infect Pinkie. The film has style, verve, craft and not least a knowledge of when to lie low and let Greene’s story speak for itself.

Film stars play boxers so regularly it has become a rite of passage. Paul Newman, Robert De Niro, Daniel Day Lewis, Will Smith; and now Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter, resculpting the muscles he flexed, before his movie career, in traffic-stopping Calvin Klein underwear ads on Sunset Boulevard.

Is that why the role fits Wahlberg so closely? Too closely? As Massachusetts-Irish Micky Ward, who won minor fights and a major sibling feud before taking the welterweight crown, he’s a hunk playing a hunk. There seems no reach or challenge. He doesn’t go the histrionic distance with his co-stars: chiefly Christian Bale as brother Dicky, ex-boxer and sometime jailbird, who overcame crack addiction and fraternal bust-ups to coach Micky to glory.

Yesterday Bale was a sealed-unit screen superhero, implacable and impassive (except when favouring YouTubers with off-camera tantrums). Now he has his best role since American Psycho. Skinny, hyperanimated, with a dese-dem-dose accent, he acts Wahlberg off the screen. Melissa Yeo, fruitily near-psychotic as Ma, and Amy Adams, yeasty and combative as Micky’s girlfriend, also excel. Directed by David O. Russell (Three Kings), the film bounces us from one pugilistic or domestic affray to the next, only coming to a near-standstill whenever Wahlberg gets acting space. It goes to show. Sometimes a film’s star role isn’t its star role; sometimes a film’s centre isn’t necessarily in its middle.

Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole looks confused to me. “Oh that’s the character she plays,” you say. “She’s a bereaved mother who lost her boy to a street accident and is now living with her husband (played by Aaron Eckhart) in their luxury suburban mansion, trying to achieve closure.”

Closure? Did you use the word “closure”? Kindly leave my reader constituency. The word is banned in this column. Yet in an unintended way you are right. Rabbit Hole is about closure. That’s what gives this play-based film, written for the screen by its Pulitzer prize-winning creator David Lindsay-Abaire, its scent of cant. That’s what makes it so wearisome and ponderous and so weighty with “theat-uh”.

Everyone monologues, philosophises, weeps or does stream-of-consciousness cadenzas. No one has a human quirk or foible. There is no “opening out”, except topographical, by director John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch). The only destination on the satnav is, indeed, closure. The reason Kidman looks confused is that after years of being told screen acting is about “being”, this stiff, hysterical text requires her to perform, project, posture. Her agent probably insisted she take the role. And she is of course up for an Oscar.

Nicolas Philibert’s most famous documentary was Etre et Avoir, the world-adored hit about a one-class children’s school in the Auvergne. His new film is Nénette, a 70-minute close-up of an orang-utan enclosure in a zoo, with off-screen commentaries. Presented with the proverb about not working with children and animals, the French director obviously says “Pah!”.

Nénette is a 40-year-old mother, multiple mate and luxuriant redhead – the simian equivalent of Rita Hayworth – who attends with sublime indifference to the keepers detailing her history or the zoo visitors groping for a verbal elaboration of “ooh” and “aah”. Like many animals this Bornese beast is compellingly watchable. But the words flung at her image are less than listenable. Philibert knows the public’s response can be sentimental and anthropomorphic. But is the cod-philosophical stuff he coaxes from others any better? “It’s like a space in an acting class ... the empire of doing nothing ... is it possible to imagine what she is thinking?”

No, it isn’t. But there may be actual experts – not just zoo carers and keepers – who know about animal behaviour pattern and brain activity. Couldn’t we have heard from them? Thank goodness for Nénette herself. She is above it all, whether scowling charismatically at the camera, wrapping her head in a mantilla-style blanket like a shy film star (uh-oh, more anthropomorphising), or delicately titrating orange juice into yoghurt for a connoisseur drink straight from the carton.

Viewer warning: James Cameron did not direct James Cameron’s Sanctum. He merely executive-produced the film and lent it his Avatar camera technology, without which this 3D tropical caving adventure – a survival-of-the-grittiest in a flood-imperilled pothole the size of Nibelheim – would be even more naff, corny and no-account than it is. At least we now know that in a subterranean hell we can still get Bad Acting Heaven. Step forth with your cod-American accents, growly one-liners and domino sequence of dying declamations, the entire cast. An ensemble prize is yours.

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