Film releases: March 5

Image of Nigel Andrews

Here is a tale of two Lewises. One wrote a small but great children’s book that still delights, surprises and enchants. The other wrote a large, pietistic series of children’s books that push Christian sermons at us in the guise of adventure fantasy. The first author, Lewis Carroll, wrote Alice in Wonderland. The second, CS Lewis, wrote the Narnia saga. Here is what happened – in my theory – when the light bulb went on above the head of Linda Woolverton, who wrote the original screenplay for the new Alice in Wonderland ().

“What if we turn Wonderland into Narnia? What if an older Alice revisits her dream world, now called Underland, and discovers a giant battle in progress between good and evil? We could have a Red Queen’s army fighting a White Queen’s, a Mad Hatter as saintly mediator, and a lot of Armageddon spectacle sure to bring in the youngsters and spawn a video game.”

Thus is Hell born. You cannot believe the dreadfulness of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland – gifted director takes on gaga script – until you see it. Enchantment has gone thataway. Once down the rabbit hole Alice, played with brave but doomed grace by Australian actress Mia Wasikowska, discovers that her old chums all walk a darkening land bearing Tolkienish/Lewisite names. The dormouse is Mallymkun, the Cheshire cat Chessur, the caterpillar Absolem. Soon the throng is joined by dragons who seem to have come from Avatar. The tea party has 10 seconds to flatter us with incipient charm – its chaotic table and moth-eaten March Hare suggest a Samuel Beckett revamp (that would be a good spin) – before it too is sacrificed to sword, sorcery and showdown. Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter shows promise for a little longer – this actor does deranged innocence better than anyone (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood) – but finally he too drowns in the Sea of Tacky Bombast.

What a relief – in case you think I disapprove of all crypto-scriptural hokum – to turn to Legion (). This is as nutty as a Mad Hatter’s fruitcake. But more watchably than The Book of Eli it gives us Judgment Day in the American desert. A bunch of oddballs in a gas station/diner hold out against Satan’s forces. These take the form of archetypally innocent interlopers (little old lady, ice cream vendor in tinkly van) who turn rabid and crawl over ceilings. Minor, but I haven’t had more fun since Eight Legged Freaks. Dennis Quaid and Paul Bettany (as the archangel Michael) lead the cast.

So to art. If an emotional drama should not wear its heart on its sleeve, where should it wear it? How does a screen story convey feeling without making a show of it? The week’s best film, the superlative Father of My Children (), has the answer: a kind of cinematic deep scan. The hearts and minds of the characters in this French movie are all but X-rayed by writer-director Mia Hansen-Love. She is so good at bustling exteriors early on – as her film producer hero Grégoire (Louis de Lencquesaing) shuttles between cash crises while his company implodes – that the beat and glow of her characters’ emotions, always there, make themselves manifest almost without our noticing.

A shocking event changes the film’s story trajectory but not its technique. Hansen-Love still neutrally records her people, or at best slides around them with assiduous discretion, as if making an anthropological documentary. The actors, in turn, behave as if no camera is watching. They live and move and are moved as if for real. The producer’s family – an Italian wife (Chiara Caselli) and three daughters (one, full-grown, played by de Lencquesaing’s own daughter Alice) – becomes not just a convincing unit, fending off grief while helplessly expressing it, but also individuals, each with her vital signs incandescent in her face and gestures.

Even the film’s symbolic purposings are deep-seamed and undemonstrative: the Edenic innocence of a milky rock pool in which the children swim, the bucolic Knights Templar chapel where Grégoire spins a casually emblematic lecture about the downfall of the Templars and their fortune. The drama in this film that sometimes seems to have none is in the faces that register truth unmediated, whether in a quarrel or an idyll, in a burst of happiness or a silent storm of grief. I never saw characters weep so convincingly on screen, so uncoercedly and uncoercingly. We never feel marched towards either a mood or a message, but we always and unforgettably “feel”.

Atom Egoyan, a once-admired Canadian fast running out of auteur cred with films such as Adoration and Ararat, takes the jobbing option with Chloe (). Someone handed him a script and he said yes. Wise man. Chloe is a dark, sexy teaser from the pen of Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary). Julianne Moore’s marriage is in crisis. Spouse Liam Neeson seems to be two-timing her. If she steers a young prostitute (Amanda Seyfried) towards Neeson, on the sly, might she somehow control and even vicariously share his menopause-retarding raptures?

The film ends with a daft dose of thriller shenanigans. But before that it is kinky, captivating, even downright Continental: a Godard or Bertolucci plot given European-standard subtlety from Moore, who on this kind of form, in this kind of film, is America’s answer to Isabelle Huppert.

Neil Jordan’s Ondine () is a fisherman’s tale with two outstretched arms – “the mermaid was this big, I tell you” – and an overstretched running time. Trawlerman Colin Farrell nets a half-dead, three-quarters-naked girl off the Irish coast. Photographed in a murky blue wash by Christopher Doyle (Wong Kar-wai’s cameraman having an off day), the story heaves about on a tide of whimsy. Finally like Chloe it turns thrillerish, though too late to make us start biting our nails over the fate of the sea salt, the “silkie” (Celtic vernacular for mermaids) and Farrell’s wheelchaired daughter, who is a plot device for putting the emotional screws on us. With any Jordan film there are a few moments of poetry, wit and transcendence. But you need a large net to catch them here.

Finally Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop opens this week in a flurry of ostentatious secrecy. I commended it lately from Berlin. Full review next week.

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