Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

The Departed should be shown with an intermission, not because it is too long but because it seems too short. At the half-time break, staff could move about the theatre assuring spectators that 75 minutes have indeed flown by, not seven, and that a full-value 75 are still to come. The interval will also allow those unused to wit, style and thrills in modern action cinema to collect their senses. This is Martin Scorsese’s best film since Goodfellas.

He could, of course, do this stuff while hanging upside down, falling from a window or running for his life, which is how some key characters spend their last moments. Others get arrested, shot or exposed as double agents. In south Boston the war between the law and the Irish Mafia – known to us movie lags as the Murphia – has a secret informer in each camp. The cops accept Matt Damon as their own even though he texts tip-offs to mentor and crime boss Jack Nicholson. Nicholson be-lieves his young sidekick Leonardo DiCaprio is a gifted criminal and borderline psychotic ex-con – in short, a lovely lad – even though DiCaprio is feeding info to the state police (Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg).

Inspired by the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, the film is a tale of two traitors. But it is so Bostonised in its setting, so rebooted in its energy, that it is recognis-able only as a Scorsese. The support cast teems with profane energy, led by a Nicholson so preeningly malefic, so leeringly droll that he is a one-man compensation for the absence of the Scorsese old team (De Niro, Keitel, Pesci). To watch Nicholson speak of “rats” while making snuffling sounds and baring his teeth in rodent mimicry is a thrill as mad and privileged as witnessing Anthony “Lecter” Hopkins dispense his liver-and-fava-beans routine. (“Ffff! . . . ”)

The front men are marginally less commanding. Damon and DiCaprio can be hard to tell apart as each plies his puppy-dog looks and pastel acting tones. Di-Caprio gets a goatee stubble for lower-depths image-enhancement; Damon coasts along on clean-shaven, skin-deep inner torment. Scorsese and the writer William Monahan make the two men compete for a droopy love interest, a young woman police shrink (Vera Farmiga) whose psychobabble dialogue and wilting-wallflower prettiness might have come down from a Jules Feiffer cartoon.

But why count quibbles? For most of its length, this film about the interchange-ability of good and evil in the Catholic stew that is criminal Boston is spicily scripted and pipingly dir-ected. Scorsese never lets a great line delay us, although there are several. (“Feds are like mushrooms: you feed them on shit and keep them in the dark” is a sample zinger, neatly defining the contempt the police have for FBI interlopers.) He cuts up action and dialogue with high-speed prestidigitation, overlapping scenes and soundbites and giving us metaphor injections when we are not looking.

“You won’t feel a thing,” the director might say, as he quick-jabs our minds with the concept of fragmenting identity in the scene of a face reflected in a tasselled hanging light made of mirror glass, or purveys the notion of tarnished tender in the leitmotif glimpses of Boston’s gold-domed capitol building. Crime will be always with us. It never pays, says the proverb. But we pay happily to see it not pay, when the man taking our money is a great filmmaker directing what he directs best.

Meryl Streep is the sole reason to see The Devil Wears Prada. They should give her the “Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical” Golden Globe right now. I wish she had sung, as well as being funny, in her role as an imperious New York fashion magazine editor supposedly based on Anna “Vogue” Wintour. That way, more time could have been subtracted from the drippy rom-com subplot (Anne Hathaway, Simon Baker) and the relentless product placement for a famous coffee brand.

Each 10 minutes, contradicting the Streep heroine’s picky preciosity regarding most other commodities (clothes, people, books), she sends out for the well-known high-street stress-enhancer. In one shot I spotted a character turning the paper cup so we get a better look at the label. As their clinching sell-out to Satan the makers should have called the film “The Devil Drinks Starbucks” – there, I’ve named and shamed – and sold the damn stuff in the auditorium.

Still: to Streep is to Streep, perchance to dream, and here is a dream performance. Hollywood’s best actress is funny whether dismissing a top designer’s entire new range by a single arch of her eyebrow, at a preview presentation, or cutting off the protests of a carpeted employee with her disdainful signature sigh, “That’s all.” The snow-white coiffure, the designer business duds, the level vocal pitch are all perfect. The Streep delivery here is a one-octave, sotto voce cross between a drawl and a purr, confirming that life’s real leaders never need to raise their voices. Quiet is the new loud, or for them the old one.

Brothers of the Head, a British film about conjoined twins, has a conjoined movie pedigree. As surely as its Adonis rock-star brothers (played by identical, separate twins Luke and Harry Treadaway) are joined at the waist by a hank of flesh, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s blend of mockumentary and mind-spin is a nearly Siamese synthesis of Performance and This is
Spinal Tap

Early groans at the prospect of another unmixed mock-doc about pop – featuring interviews with “real” people (Ken Russell, Brian Aldiss) and a po-voiced narration – quickly prove premature. Soon we are diving into a sexual-metaphysical half-world where frontiers melt musically and existentially, where love is polymorphous (straight, gay, incestuous) and where the camera behaves like some maverick water nymph licensed to swim the depths of dream and desire.

Sounds weird? Is weird. But Fulton and Pepe (who made the documentary about Terry Gilliam’s abandoned Don Quixote film, Lost in La Mancha) are kept cogent by the screenwriter Tony Grisoni (In This World, 24-Hour Party People), adapting Brian Aldiss’s same-name novel. The marvellous photography by Anthony Dod Mantle, formerly Britain’s man in “Dogme 95” Denmark, is like ultrasound images of earthly reality. The Treadaway twins’ performances are little short of stunning. Sinisterly beautiful, they give these mirror-image rock gods – out of windswept Norfolk! – a charisma at once physical and otherworldly, like beings caught in a limbo between birth and death but whose umbilical cord to the beyond remains stubbornly, mysteriously uncut.

In the daft but cheerful Hollywood comedy Accepted, a boy (Justin Long) fakes a college acceptance letter to appease his parents and must then fake the college. How to turn a derelict mental asylum into a seeming Alma Mater; how to round up friends and keep them off drugs for a day of let’s-
pretend campus-wandering; how to hire charlatan or blacklisted teachers; these are vital things for a teenager to learn and are entertaining in the telling.

Do not wait for the DVD or telecast of Man Push Cart: it may be invisible. See the film in a cinema. Shot eye-strainingly at night, Ramin Bahrani’s tale of a Pakistani food-kiosk owner in New York – his hopes, sorrows, mini-tragedies – is neo-
realism gone Stygian. But the tale is poignantly told,
powerfully understated and well acted. Eat carrots and hang in there.

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article