British cinema – dead or alive? After the abolition of the Film Council, the nation’s late-mourned funding body, doomsayers are already crying “RIP” over independent moviemaking. Yet two films this week are as good as anything from the UK this year. Last products of the old order? Or first signs of life in the new?
Perestroika () , from the artist and video maker Sarah Turner, takes us on a journey. Two journeys, dovetailed. The narrating “heroine” – Turner’s own voice – is barely seen. We hear her stream of consciousness as she and we travel towards Lake Baikal on a trans-Siberian train. The changing view from the windows constitutes 90 per cent of the visual imagery. At first the film seems ponderous with mission: we hear something about “an ecological consciousness-raising trip”, something no less jargonish about a “document of process”. But wait. The blurry passage of the landscape, the blurry elision of time … Turner made this trip 20 years before, or did she, with a best friend who died. Is she reconstructing? Re-imagining? Are we in a drama or a documentary?
The voice continues with its litanies, yet also adds fillips of insight: pithinesses about memory, subjectivity, truth, illusion. Finally – weathered and a little worn like real train travellers – we tumble into a present bright and lurid with stillness. A ruined hotel. A lake as big as a sea. And a death, never explained but by now as momentous to us, and as engulfing, as a black hole. What begins as a travelogue with philosophical trimmings turns into a puzzle picture worthy of Resnais or Antonioni.
Filmmaker Paul Andrew Williams won praise and prizes with his first film, London to Brighton, a stylishly visceral thriller. Now comes Cherry Tree Lane, () magisterial and scary from the opening image of a cream-white, virginal, up-scale London housefront, framed in a menacing zoom. (The shot is like a prospective robber or rapist leaving his calling card.)
The medium-posh couple inside (Rachael Blake and Tom Butcher) bickering through a white-tablecloth dinner are stormed by three youths. They are bound, gagged and threatened with a knife. For an hour the tension tightens, fear alternating with bleak comedy. “Are you foreign? Half these films are foreign,” says the gang’s black leader (Jumayn Hunter), scanning the DVDs and flipping away the rejects in a balletic slow motion of the hand.
What do these youths want? There is time for them to appraise the wife as sex-prey: “You’re not so old.” Time for two girlfriends and a little schoolboy (one girl’s brother) to arrive and virtually settle in. The grim comedy keeps coming and the laughter keeps dying in our throats. The film is very frightening, with an ending cathartic and unexpected, and a last shot whose acidic irony is worthy of Graham Greene.
With Certified Copy () Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian director deft at playing artistic hide-and-seek with the authorities – from Pirandellian parables (the Cannes Golden Palm-winning Taste of Cherry) to coterie chamber dramas (his last film, Shirin) – decamps to make a French-funded film set in Tuscany. Juliette Binoche, a French single mother, meets an English author on a book-signing tour, played by opera singer William Shimell. They walk, talk, and for seeming mischief in cafés and shops, feign being a married couple. Soon the feint starts to seem oddly real. Are there deeper truths? Or deeper games?
Philosophising on the theme of originals against copies – the subject of Shimell’s book – Kiarostami wonders how far a pretend intimacy can be pushed before it becomes, after a fashion, actual. The couple’s imagination breeds scenes from a fantasised past. The film, like the hero, ends up looking in a mirror asking: “How many layers, how many self-reflections truly am I?” The movie’s strengths are a teasing script and Binoche’s chameleon-emotioned performance, which won the Best Actress prize at Cannes. The weaknesses are its sometimes mundane mise-en-scène and the acting of Shimell, stiff and stagy even for the role of an Anglo-Saxon egghead out of touch with his inner child. NA
The Switch () has Jennifer Aniston playing a broody, late-30-something New York City single buying sperm from a hot but couth Columbia professor (Patrick Wilson, slightly overdoing the frat-boy perfection). Horrified by her pragmatism, her devoted but recalcitrant best friend (Jason Bateman) finds himself “hijacking the pregnancy” with a secret, last-minute donation of his own sperm.
Although you’re continually aware of the somewhat preening shape of the material and its “fertility-issues” arc, The Switch still features some sweet, goofy writing. But it suffers ruinously from the number-one irritation of most slick comedy: money. Everyone has an excess of it and magically lives in apartments virtually covered in jewels. Aniston works as a television producer (I think) but from the off her whole life seems as depressingly fantastical as the purposefully ludicrous moment where Wilson flashes his nuclear grin and says he teaches feminist literature (he memorably descends from a leisure centre climbing wall, at one point, like a Greek statue).
One wonders how much more of these kinds of films Aniston can make. Not a month goes by without her being papped speeding from one location to the next, filming yet another urban rom-com – it’s a repetition compulsion and an intervention ought to be staged. She has a sourness now. For a while in her post-TV career, Aniston seemed to be burlesquing her “Rachel” self and it was a sweet (if self-conscious) burlesque that passed for extreme charm – every other gesture had a shaft of wit. But these days we’re more likely to find her as she is here: chin slightly raised, voice shrill, slim hands held up in an appeal, transmitting disappointment. Bateman is a smart actor with a melancholy boyishness (although he’s only 41). When his eyes fill with tears for a moment, the film is genuinely bathed in pathos.
Jonah Hex () – an adaptation of a DC comic about a semi-supernatural post-Civil War hero and bounty hunter – is, at 81 minutes, scarcely even feature length, and bewilderingly chaotic. John Malkovich appears as the film’s antagonist but is these days depressingly diminished as a screen presence. Still, what a run he had of it. For a good 20 years after Dangerous Liaisons, Malkovich was perceived as having a secret code to acting, a seemingly unique ability to mess around with lines, making the craft look as fascinatingly tricky as it can be. His technical ability, then, didn’t even try to disguise itself.
Dinner for Schmucks () is a big-name adaptation of a French screwball comedy about a businessman who must find an “idiot” to entertain his heartless work colleagues for the night. The film points its finger at man’s cruelty and mendacity and constructs a winsome world involving mice in tiny pristine suits and taxidermy, but is actually indescribably boring (the final 40 minutes waiting for all the inevitable plot ends to be tied are excruciating). Pushed to extreme slapstick, the plot rises or falls on our laughing in recognition that we too are capable of the perverse and unkind. Instead, 10 minutes in, we just feel dead. Steve Carell stars as the idiot – in a wig and bad teeth. Just in case we didn’t get that he was supposed to be the fall guy. AQ