Film reviews: Diana, Hawking, InRealLife, Kelly + Victor, The Call and Metro Manila

Diana proves what we suspected when The Queen was followed by The Iron Lady. A race of actresses, trained in identity theft, is moving in on the British ruling class. Dame Helen Mirren can no longer be distinguished from H.M. Elizabeth II. A hair-curling paper could not be slipped between Meryl Streep and Margaret Thatcher. Now Naomi Watts as the “people’s princess” has the walk, the talk, the stork figure and the blend of diffidence and dazzle that made Princess Di.

It is spooky at times. Like Diana herself among the Windsors, Watts seems frighteningly isolated. She is the only performer/character for whom we give a damn; elsewhere Oliver Downfall Hirschbiegel’s film from Stephen Jeffreys’ script fills up with drones and droids played by undercast thespians (Geraldine James, Juliet Stevenson, Douglas Hodge). Like Diana too, Watts is made to seem a little manic merely by the genteel and pompous inertia surrounding her.

When a post-Charles romantic passion is served, it is in the shape of a medium-dusky near-easterner famed in his own field of endeavour. No, not Dodi. (He comes at start and close, the film bookending itself with that bad night in Paris.) This heartthrob is British-Pakistani heart surgeon Dr Hasnat Khan, of whom I had never heard – call me a stranger to Planet Tabloid – and of whom actor Naveen Andrews makes an unlikely Lothario. Benign, sad-eyed, plumping a little. Bedside manner, yes. Not so easy to see why Diana wanted him in bed.

Once again Watts supplies the wattage. Going nutty one rejected night in Kensington Gardens, she storms from Doc Khan, sloughing her high-heels as she hastens away (haven’t seen that since Dietrich in Morocco) and charges into the palace for a barefoot, bared-heart bash at The Goldberg Variations. It is a stirring moment, if you like heady kitsch at the piano. Once again one actress provides the compensating passion in a torpid drama. Candle in the wind? More stand-alone blow-lamp in a cast of sputtering tapers.

In Hawking the world’s most famous scientist narrates his own biography. He does so in that robotic voice now so familiar it seems more “human” than those of our neighbours. It always seemed more human than those Creationist voices railing against Stephen Hawking’s godless theory of the Earth’s origin. A Big Bang? What blasphemy . . .

Veneration, though, sceptics could counter-argue, has now passed to the God usurper. In Stephen Finnigan’s documentary, co-written with Hawking, we could do with a little less world genuflection and a little more gritty adversity. The emotional impact of the onset of motor neurone disease gets two sentences: “I became something of a tragic character. I took to listening to Wagner.” Two marriages break up with vague accountings. (Reported domestic assault episodes in the second are breezed past.) And why are none of Hawking’s three children among the interviewees?

Somehow the film still mesmerises. Perhaps the paradoxes and contradictions – those still surviving – help. Establishing God as an improbability, Hawking has spent his whole adult life doing the (wildly) improbable. A man cannot survive motor neurone disease for 50 years: he has. A scientist cannot overthrow black hole theory, and with it theories of the universe’s origin, in a single thesis: he did. An author cannot make a world bestseller from a book on advanced science: he did. And still Hawking goes to parties; thinks, writes, teaches; guest-stars in TV comedy gigs (The Simpsons, Jim Carrey); and articulately curates his own legend. Si monumentum requiris, see this film.

“Does aught befall you? It is part of the great web,” said Marcus Aurelius prophetically. Today we are all part of it. Film-maker/documentarist Beeban Kidron explores the IT age in InRealLife, surfing widely and provocatively. We meet internet-hooked kids, perplexed and struggling grownups, media experts trying to manufacture digestible wisdoms. (And mostly disagreeing with each other.)

Is the world being enlightened by the web age? Or exploited? Is the “cloud” just another cloud of unknowing? It is chilling, but perhaps predictable, that Google, Twitter, Facebook and Co. all declined to be interviewed. It is no less chilling that many teenagers Kidron meets seem truly enslaved to their smart-phones and cyber-spheres, whether it’s the boy setting aside a lonely, regular porn hour – “It’s my time, that’s what I like” – or the girl acquiescing in gang rape to recover a kidnapped mobile. You do warm, though, to the gay youngster finding love on the net, and the spectacle of him and his web boyfriend still jamming intensively with their touch-typing (“Which direction are you coming from . . . ?”) 30 seconds from the moment of physically meeting.

Merseyside night life takes on a whole new complexion in Kelly + Victor. Are there dark corners of Liverpool where Sacher-Masoch and de Sade lurk? Kieran Evans’s film, adapted from Niall Griffiths’ novel, is a Scouse In the Realm of the Senses. Kelly (blonde, pale, face of an insomniac pixie) loves Victor (sweet, pliant, goodlooking) with a skin-scratching, neck-throttling, bondage-favouring, in one scene initial-carving – don’t try this at home – passion.

Faites vos jeux interdits. Evans makes these scenes at once inexplicit – no hardcore shots – and shocking. Intercut flash shots of flickering sunlight, of memory fragments, power the transgressive sex journeys as if through some space-time encapsulation of the characters’ whole ambient lives. Between bed scenes the film dulls out a little: meandering Liverpool walkabouts scored for dirge-like synthesisers. (The 60s-era Art Movie Handbook.) Whenever we are in the bedroom, though, the story catches fire . . . 

Halle Berry answers 911 calls in The Call and trains switchboard cadets. Always act quickly, resourcefully, thinkingly, especially when a caller pleads “I’ve been kidnapped!” down a phone line. Abigail Breslin, bunged in a car boot by a nutter and being driven God knows where, cellphones her plight. Halle seizes the phone from a rookie. Audience, start biting nails.

First you think you’re in B-movie hell, then you find you’re being driven by a clever low-budget thriller which will decide, itself, when to flip the boot lid and release you. The film was rubbished by some US critics with Pavlovian responses. “Halle Berry. Cop movie. Unknown director. Duh. Can’t be good.” Nonsense. It’s a neat nerve-frayer with lessons for anyone finding themselves trapped in a confined space and needing to alert the outside world.

Like film critics. Here we are, trapped in another seeming B-movie, in Sean Ellis’s Metro Manila. But wait! This is turning good too. A British-directed social thriller-melodrama set in the Philippines, and scripted in native Tagalog, it presents a rural family corrupted by the move to the big city. Characterisation basic. But plot well-turned and pace moodily rubato, as in the best kind of B-movie.

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