Film reviews: Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, The Lone Ranger, Foxfire, Silence, Looking for Hortense

Master of social ineptitude and cringe-factor exuberance, Alan Partridge is a comedy marvel so British it has taken more than 20 years for him and his creators – actor Steve Coogan, main writer Armando Iannucci – to risk a feature film. He is “so British” because in Britain embarrassment has become a fund of modern, or postmodern, mirth. It must be all this living in an island goldfish bowl, where the world (and the fish) stare in at us. Add to that the post-imperial blues of a nation in geopolitical decline, and the self-deprecation culture that comes with it.

On television Steve Coogan’s Norwich broadcaster has been a glorious presence: a small-time twerp with a big-time ego, two trainered feet taking turns to enter a howler-fluent mouth. (No wonder there are so many foot jokes. In an early scene in this movie: “Are you on medication?” “Just the athlete’s foot cream ... ”) Small-screen situation comedy is the perfect Partridge medium. In sitcom the “situations” or crises are exactly calibrated: small, quotidian, precision-crafted in their ludicrousness, making the hero’s overdrive behaviour all the funnier. The braggadocio rhetoric of Tony Hancock; the ingratiating laddishness taken ad delirium by Ricky Gervais in The Office ...

Then along comes cinema to crush the joke. In Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, as in so many telly-to-movie comedies, the plot and acoustic are broadened for a large screen and a world market and precision-crafting goes that away. Here we get a police siege. North Norfolk Digital is invaded by a sacked DJ with a grudge (Colm Meaney), taking hostages. The cops surround the building. Who else to negotiate but AP, the goof with the size-10 shoes and size-12 patter?

It’s fun at first. Then the fun is air-pumped up until it isn’t fun. As an early concession to fans, almost a buy-off, we get an opening scene of the true Alan, Alan the radio host: that beaming trivia hooligan hectoring listeners with “What is the worst ‘monger’? Fish, iron, scandal ... ?” Away from the studio there is also a throwaway early gag – brilliantly micro-cinematic – in which our hero expatiates to a mate about the “osprey preservation” website he is surfing while the lenses of his specs reflect a screenful of naked boobs and bums.

After that it is “Enter the plot”, and the plot is a 10-foot-tall flatty from Plotland Yard, swinging its cosh and KO-ing laughter. Coogan and his writers manage, even so, a few defiant moments. “I’m trying to host a siege,” declaims Partridge on the building steps, self-important and showbizzy to the last. And you have to admire the Alan attire. This has now evolved from cardies and upscale sports casuals (circa the 1990s) to Top Gear chic. In Alpha Papa the hero resembles – and it somehow seems a logical stage in the Partridge growth – a demented Jeremy Clarkson impersonator.

The Lone Ranger gallops across our skulls for two and a half hours, pounding them into the same kind of desert as that on screen: a barren flatland with occasional rearing outcries of rock. “Rock and roll”, the movie might hope. The few but funky action set pieces – two runaway train sequences, a dynamited bridge, an exploding silver mine – try to win a young audience for a big-screen revamp of the whiskery TV and Saturday matinee western double act: the masked white man and his Comanche sidekick.

Johnny Depp is sadly a dull Tonto. A wooden Indian with a leaden drawl, he livens up only during chase scenes, when we get a painted Buster Keaton scampering high-kneed but stone-faced along a train roof. Armie Hammer’s Lone Ranger is amiable, though largely played as a doofus paleface since we’re in 2013 PC (Political Correctness era). Both men are pinballed around a script with little idea of structure or development, only the ping of gimmicks and the buzz-shriek-clang of witless action climaxes.

French director Laurent Cantet’s Foxfire is based on Joyce Carol Oates’s 1993 novel about a teenage female gang declaring war on men and male supremacism. We are in the 1950s, before the official birth of feminism. Cantet is good with youngsters: his school drama The Class won the 2008 Cannes Palme d’Or. Scarier and more individualised than the modish misfits of last month’s The Bling Ring, the gangsters in this upstate New York story, filmed in English-speaking Canada, are played by nonprofessional youngsters handpicked and “workshopped” like the cast of The Class. They are brilliantly believable (even if their vowel sounds are more Toronto than New England).

The camera swings after them, handheld, restless, observant. They sail the streets; they scuff up men they don’t like. An early solidarity rite has them swearing each other in, during a candlelit initiation ceremony complete with painful DIY tattooing. One character writes and overvoices the gang’s diary – “‘Foxfire’ was a true blood sisterhood.” Her best friend, played with formidable poise and a kind of bewitching reposeful alertness by Raven Adamson (place a bet on stardom), becomes the leader. With the grim, ineluctable logic of resistance movements – the logic of mission creep and self-fulfilling vows of fanaticism – the girls move from nonconformism to violent confrontation, from empowerment to their and others’ endangerment.

In off-coast Donegal no one can hear you scream. That’s good news for film-maker Pat Collins and writer-star Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride, since their film Silence is about, well, silence. The main character, in a narrative teasingly suspended between feature and documentary, is a sound recordist making a pilgrimage from Berlin, his home, to his native Ireland. He wants to record landscapes without human noise. Think of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, then imagine it refilmed by a team of Trappist monks.

A lone, dark, bearded, aquiline-featured figure, our Eoghan tramps the damply gorgeous landscapes. Sometimes he speaks to people, about the past, about bygone depopulation crises, about birds ... Mostly we are alone with him and the scenery, and with the rapture of many ears – his and ours – extended to catch those moments of magic in nature when multitudinous noises stand poised on the brink of no noise at all.

Nature’s silence is a far cry – though not far enough for me – from the sound of the French wittering classes. In Pascal Bonitzer’s Looking for Hortense Kristin Scott Thomas, back in Europe after the Thai madness of Only God Forgives, is a Chekhov-staging theatre director. Her partner (Jean-Pierre Bacri) is an Asian-studies academic flitting after a young Serb (Isabelle Carré) whose visa problems he play-acts taking to heart. He has no heart, of course. Nor does anyone else in this Boho chat piece, at once contrived and jerry-constructed. Bonitzer has done good work before. (He screenwrote La Belle Boiseuse). Here he makes you realise how good Eric Rohmer was as a writing director – and how un-simple it is to gather together two or three characters on screen and make them compellingly talk, think and feel.

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