Curse of the Wise Child

Reader, I suspect that your regular correspondent very specifically chose this week to take a holiday from the screening rooms, because – and forgive my Grinchness – I’m afraid it’s a total boob. In brief: we have a quietist nun, Ethan Hawke in “intellectual” spectacles, and a film by Stephen Daldry.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is so slow and self-important that its Academy Award Best Picture nomination only proves that the shortlist (expanded from the once confident five to a woolly “between five and 10”) is too long, and this year certainly shouldn’t include The Descendants or Midnight in Paris – or this. Not to act as if aggregated reviews are an authority or tablets from the mountain, but the (very useful) film review site Rotten Tomatoes rates ELAIC at 44 per cent. Now, even terrible films get a score of about 90 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes. But 44 per cent is unusually low – worse, even, than the unspeakable Star Wars: Episode 1.

Adapted by the writer of Forrest Gump from the hit novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, ELAIC is about a peculiarly polymathic 11-year-old boy in New York coming to terms with the death of his adored father (played in flashback by a nicely low-key Tom Hanks) in the twin towers. The book was full of an idolatrous wonder about well-educated childhood and learning in general, with paragraphs devoted to the boy’s touching malapropisms and obsession with oxymorons. Translated to screen, the story suffers too ruinously from the ghastly curse of the Wise Child (how one longs for a film featuring a stupid child who says stupid things) who comes over at best as narcissistic and at worst as creepy until it all smells like something by the dreaded Wes Anderson or Noah Baumbach: that is, like a film whose “endearing” eccentricity and kookiness fails to hide an underlying contempt for or understanding of, say, boring things like money, or the simple realities of the world. In ELAIC, for example, the child lives in a paradisiacal Manhattan apartment and goes about all day with a tambourine that he perpetually taps to express the beating of his nervous heart.

Daldry’s last three movies have all been adapted from novels that were on the cusp of being literary but remained essentially middlebrow. All stories buttressed by a capitalised Issue. Oscar fiction. (The Hours and Aids; The Reader and the Holocaust; and this, 9/11.) But the events of 9/11 are not remotely interestingly interrogated in this movie. If you want to see the one film that has done this to date, wait for the DVD of Kenneth Lonergan’s bedevilled Margaret (out July 2), a story about a hit and run in NYC that slowly adds up to a proper post-9/11 story about intemperance and inappropriately violent responses.

The Woman in the Fifth has Ethan Hawke as an American novelist hiding out in down-at-heel Paris attempting to connect with his estranged daughter. He has an affair with Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays the wife of a dead Hungarian writer. Scott Thomas is magnificent – as lovely and imperious as she was in The English Patient – going about neatly picking little imaginary bits of tobacco from her lower lip whenever she lights a cigarette (a very Scott Thomas gesture – she does it all the time in Four Weddings) and saying withering things like “the thing he was most famous for was not using any punctuation, which made him bloody difficult to translate”. One senses the dead Hungarian clutching his stomach in his grave. With the exception of one brilliantly uncomfortable literary party scene, the film is really just a euro-sub-pudding with psycho-thriller possibilities. Curious, though, to see how thoroughly Hawke has taken to walking like the young Richard Gere: short, fast, sultry steps, very posed, incredibly empty.

Hadewijch, Bruno Dumont’s far-fetched fantasy about a devoted Catholic novice nun who falls in with a Muslim fundamentalist, is obsessed with the extraordinarily impassive face of its star. Simultaneously docile and cagy, with her pretty eyes upturned, the teenage Julie Sokolowski frequently adopts the pose of Joan of Arc in the silent Dreyer film, occasionally squeezing out tears as she considers the heaviness of the world and all its benighted heathens.

There are moments when one believes this girl is truly squashing the kind of emotions most films aim to expose, and in these moments Hadewijch can be quite stirring, especially when Sokolowski suddenly commits a terrible crime in a matter-of-fact tone. But one never feels the detonating effects of a desire for our participation or care for our response. The film never takes us in far enough.

In Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance Nicolas Cage – as an undead and furious biker – rides through Romania on the heels of the devil’s child and his mother, a woman whose over-kohled eyes and wild hair call uncomfortably to mind the post-Countdown Carol Vorderman. Ciarán Hinds plays the devil. It’s all a bit ITV drama premiere. (One keeps expecting Trevor Eve to appear in a bomber jacket.)

Still, when isn’t it a treat to see Cage’s veneers and hair plugs? He looks bloody terrific, and throughout even the worst of his films always successfully projects a sense that the notion of man’s life on Earth is essentially comic. Cage said recently: “I was in England doing a junket for the film, dressed in leather from head to toe, and I decided to go to Westminster Abbey on my lunch break . . .” Apparently at the Abbey he accidentally walked into an environmental summit with Rowan Williams and the head of the Greek Orthodox Church – and stayed. Now, Ghost Rider, based on a Marvel comic character, cannot claim to say much about human nature, but who could not love this actor?

Position Among the Stars is the witty final part of an acclaimed documentary trilogy following a working-class family in Jakarta. Fans of the previous films will be horrified to hear that Bakti’s wife finally flips after a scrap and fries his cherished fighting fish, serving them to Bakti with egg. Noodles – and much more – before bedtime.

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