There has only ever been one good way to tell a true story: make it up as you go along. That explains why Killing Bono is a charming, zany rock comedy – tinkering freely with truth as it narrates the real-life Neil McCormick’s (Ben Barnes) near-miss date with musical fame – while the timid, scrupulous, respectful Oranges and Sunshine, recounting how social worker Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson) stumbled on the historical scandal of British wartime orphans shipped to misery and abuse in Australia, is literalistic, echoless, dead.
The first film’s ace is its universality. We have all, at some time or other, wanted to kill Bono. There he is, pop’s professional bleeding heart, with those sunglasses and those better-world bromides that can drive a person mad. We like his music, though. So does ex-schoolmate and journalist/memoirist McCormick, though he was less loving as a lad when he formed a rival band, stopping his resentful-ever-after brother Ivan (Robert Sheehan) from joining U2.
That’s it for plot. Neil and Ivan, growing up just a little, scurry after the legend-bound Dubliners’ bandwagon hoping for one last supporting gig or, failing that, one last Bono assassination attempt. The film starts funny, with the decision of the U2 founding fathers to rename themselves. (“The Edge?” asks someone, “the edge of what?”) Then it has the blithe notion of presenting the brothers as a kind of Dublin Withnail and I, Sheehan doing the curly mopped passivity as “I”, Barnes eradicating Prince Caspian memories with his hyperkinetic Richard E. Grant-gone-Irish impersonation.
I also loved Peter Serafinowicz’s doleful ex-Etonian band manager, who surveys a line of off-the-bus musicians relieving themselves at the roadside with: “I’m watching the world’s most depressing water feature.” Pete Postlethwaite pops up in a tiny but touching valedictory cameo. Add a reproachful mention of the Pope for drawing away audiences during his Irish tour – “He has no appreciation of the live music scene” – and we realise that Killing Bono has all its priorities correct. Not just fiction, or comic ornamentation, before fact; also rock before religion.
Then there is Oranges and Sunshine. Director Jim Loach (son of Ken) and screenwriter Rona Munro (of Loach Sr’s Ladybird Ladybird) pick the worst of all storytelling options. They could have made a feature documentary. They could have opted for a dramatic reimagining – a down-under Magdalene Sisters – following the fates of the exported orphans in their cruel schools and labour squads.
Instead this 1980s-set film tells, at a lethally dulling distance, of social worker Humphreys’ sleuthing for truth among ageing survivors. To disempower the drama further, some of these people (understandably but not dramatically) are portrayed as tongue-tied with trauma. It is as if Spielberg had made Saving Private Ryan not by re-enacting wartime events but by showing a do-gooder wandering latter-day Normandy, collecting Omaha Beach survivors to probe and prompt with fitful success.
Emily Watson gives the only believable performance in a film beset by clunky dialogue and torpid mise-en-scène. The memory of a true-life tragedy – whose causes and circumstances the film never adequately explains – is not even safe from insult at the close. We end with black and white newsreel footage of the original children, their faces horizontally stretched by widescreen distortion. No one has even bothered to correct the ratio. Having failed with drama, the film couldn’t even let truth have its simple, unspoilt moment in the sun.
Source Code is brighter, better, battier. Like Jake Gyllenhaal we have all woken on a moving train wondering where we are, how we got there, and why we are surrounded by glazed humanoids pretending to be real people. The only difference, in this sci-fi tale of parallel realities, is that Gyllenhaal keeps waking. He is propelled into this simulated universe by project supervisor Vera Farmiga. Her company has discovered how to identify a mad train-bomber by sending in a crashed war-zone helicopter pilot to revisit the crime scene, in his mind and apparent body, over and over…
Duncan Jones (Moon) directs Ben Ripley’s neatly turned script. The geek generation will enjoy it, all those under-18s raised on advanced quantum theory and space-time conundrums. So may veterans who remember Last Year in Marienbad (1961). As with the Resnais/Robbe-Grillet masterwork, the past is less a foreign country, more an ever-shifting furniture showroom. Just when you think you have a fix on everything, and where exactly it is, you don’t.
In Blooded another crime scene is revisited. Sometimes the best condition of mind in which to view a new film is mild idiocy. I was fooled. I did believe that this “documentary” was about a real manhunt on the Isle of Mull by the so-named Animal Welfare League. I did believe that “Lucas Bell”, a pro-foxhunting lobbyist, and his pals had been stripped, chased and all but tortured by dumb-chum fanatics. I did believe that this film had been made a year or two after AWL’s own footage of the stunt went viral on the net.
The ruse is to film “Bell” and company in interviews, while using dramatised footage to recreate their ordeal. Think of Touching the Void, then take away all contact with real history. The tone of Blooded is a little trashy, with over-portentous interviews and some crashing music for the chase scenes. But that may be part of its naughty, crafty imposture, its mixture of the plausible and the apocryphal.
I am not always so gullible. I seem to be the last person standing while other critics kneel reverently before Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing. Trailing praise and prizes (Venice Best Actor, Venice Special Jury Prize), it has wowed the willing with its tale, at least honestly fictional, of a captured Middle East jihadist (Vincent Gallo) fleeing through Polish snows after escaping his rendition convoy. Where others see a feral tale of survival – not just essential killing but essential robbing, essential raw-fish-eating, even essential breastfeeding as he holds a young mother at gunpoint – I see a succession of far-fetched plot turns to which Skolimowski blinds us, or tries, with politically challenging subject matter.
We can’t like an insurgent who fought for a Taliban-esque foe, can we? That question is Skolimowski’s decoy poser. With it he distracts us from the coincidences and mangy contrivances making up his tale. The conveniently found manacle key; the conveniently sundered leg chains; the convenient changes of outfit; the peasantwoman ex machina who offers him shelter…
Put another way: if the story had been about a British or American soldier it would have been laughed off the screen. Instead admirers sit obediently, awed (or liking to think they are) by the alien and unknowable. To double-indemnify himself, Skolimowski deploys flashbacks suggesting our hero was, after all, a kinder, gentler insurrectionist. The film plays its audience every which way, or every which way but those of human truth and narrative plausibility. The “Gaudeamus” noises from some critics go on regardless. Go see; be your own judge and jury.