Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn – France/Denmark) 90 minutes
Nicolas Winding Refn, long a purveyor of slick action movies for art house audiences, reunites with Ryan Gosling after the success that was Drive. This time the setting is Thailand and Gosling plays Julian, the seemingly reluctant son of an American crime family, who is being urged by his psychotic mother (a surprisingly effective Kristin Scott Thomas) to avenge the death of his older brother. (The brother had it coming to him, something which gives Julian some pause). The man they are looking for is police chief Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), an impassive taciturn killer who swings a mean krabi sword, and who is unlikely to go quietly.
Gosling is a man who will always be able to rely upon the goodwill of the world’s womenfolk; unfortunately he has been less well served by his agent and the world’s casting directors. Only a small handful of the films he has appeared in have been any good and there have been a great many duffers. Only God Forgives falls somewhere between those two stools but it is a disappointment and doesn’t really do justice to Gosling, who is a decent actor. He reprises his puppy-dog Steve McQueen silent type from Drive and it falls a bit flat as he is forced to wander aimlessly around a film that is far more attentive to look than to plot. Gosling is not so inexpressive as he first appears but the silent role doesn’t always work (I shudder to think how he will turn out in the next Terrence Malick, which he has just finished shooting).
Where Only God Forgives excels is in atmosphere and with its visual palette; Refn is one of the greatest filmers of the night going and some of his sequences are wonderfully mounted. But whereas Drive pared its story of an unlikely tough-guy loner down to a sharp, clean fable, his new film is a mess that overplays its hand far too often. Refn is a little too in love with the photogenic locations he found in Bangkok and he can’t resist framing everything with exquisite taste – there is one particular shot of Scott Thomas against a grilled window that is annoyingly intrusive, if geometrically beautiful. The director’s hand is also far too apparent in a host of characters that are poorly written and barely credible (true, the film is not meant to be overly realistic but you still need a bit of credibility to hook the viewer). There are some scenes too which are just woefully incompetent, such as when Julian, for reasons best known to himself, decides to introduce his hooker girlfriend to his harridan of a mother.
The violence in the film is also a bit hard to take, even by Refn’s standards, and there is a bit too much sadistic pleasure in its portrayal. Refn does his best to suffuse the film with local atmosphere, going so far as to have the opening credits in Thai, but the only Thais that interest him are hookers and viciously venal cops. I don’t wish to throw the ‘racist’ tag about but Refn’s portrayal of Thailand certainly ticks all the Orientalist boxes. Only God Forgives, with its bombastic title and its sexy, red-lit sheen will please fans of sado-arty cinema, and fans of Ryan Gosling, but it’s thin stuff that is best consumed as a cinematic coffee-table book.
Park Chan-wook’s Korean films, I have to admit, leave me quite unmoved. They’re not particularly bad but there is a wearying samey-ness about them and they demand a suspension of disbelief so constant your disbelief is in danger of getting serious cramp. It doesn’t help either that, for the general public in the West, Park has eclipsed all of Korean cinema – I have lost count of the amount of times I have heard someone ask, upon hearing of a Korean film, ‘is that by the guy who did Old Boy?’
But, just as one might socialise more with a casual acquaintance from back home were one to meet them while travelling, I was interested in seeing how Park fared in an American setting. Stoker is produced by Ridley Scott and his late brother Tony – an unusual departure in itself for them – and is based on an original script by actor Wentworth Miller (of Prison Break fame), one that looks like it was specifically written with Park in mind. The samey-ness, even in a new locale, continues, but that is not necessarily a bad thing for Stoker, which is a chillingly effective thriller.
The film opens with a monologue delivered by wealthy teenager India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), who has pulled her car up by the side of the road, and steps out, in long-shot, announcing, in breathless voiceover, ‘I’m not formed by things that are of myself alone. I wear my father’s belt tied around my mother’s blouse, and shoes which are from my uncle. This is me. Just as a flower does not choose its colour, we are not responsible for what we have come to be’. Latecomers to the screening might be forgiven for thinking they are watching one of those vacuous ads for fashion houses that are regularly shown before the main feature. It is a canny device though, which foreshadows the way the film sculpts emptiness into something icy and freakishly substantial.
We then move on (or back?) to the funeral of India’s father, who has been killed in a tragic car accident. India, who went on hunting trips with her beloved father (Dermot Mulroney), is disturbed by the arrival of her paternal uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) who has seemingly been travelling the world learning how to be refined. He also has designs on India’s mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), who has little compunction in shedding her widow’s weeds to consent. So far, so Hamlet then, and it is little surprise that Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy and the films of Park Chan-wook, already not a million miles apart, should become joined at the hip in Park’s first Western film.
Stoker is not a conventional thriller or horror film as Miller and Park divulge vital plot information far too early for the intrigue to hold up. At first this is an annoyance but it soon becomes clear that the plot is being cast off, almost as a McGuffin, and character is of far greater concern. And India Stoker is a fantastic heroine, one rarely seen in mainstream cinema – a troubled, ingeniously resourceful, viciously moral teenager, and one whose evolution will trouble audiences as much as it thrills them. Mia Wasikowska, like Rooney Mara, may be at risk of being typecast as a troubled young waif but she captures the cold justice of India superbly here. The shadow of Hitchcock (not to mention the Irish writer alluded to in the titular heroine’s name) also looms over the film – the casting itself has an air of Hitchcockian caprice about it: Goode, a vacant, mannequin-like presence at the best of times, is just right for the wraithishly handsome Uncle Charlie. The repeated scenes where he pulls his belt (stolen from his brother, the same one referenced in the opening scene) out of its loops are diabolically sadistic but inflected with all the gustatory visual bravura of luxury advertising. Kidman, a woman who has, over two decades, gradually emptied herself of acting prowess, is also well cast as the unthinking pawn who becomes the target of her daughter’s righteous ire.
As I said before, Stoker shows us nothing new in the Park Chan-wook canon, but expatriated to the United States, it acquires an unexpected freshness. You have to hand it to the Scotts, for having the balls to confer a mainstream production on Park (and Miller); there will be many audiences exposed to such a deft psychological portrait as this for the first time. If Park is given another couple of films in the US, we may even hear an end to the question ‘is that the guy who did Old Boy?’
Baz Luhrmann adapts Fitzgerald and the result is pretty much as you might expect. There are no surprises here. You have a continual sense that you have seen this film before. That is largely because you have – if, that is, you happened to chance upon any of Luhrmann’s previous four features. Luhrmann goes for the same notes all the time, he modulates them less than a Wahhabi muezzin delivering an unwavering call to prayer. The film is all singing, all dancing, all loud, all of the time. But, you expect that, don’t you?
Luhrmann tackles the jazz age by ignoring jazz entirely in favour of executive producer Jay-Z’s sub-woofed party fuzz; but there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that – the anachronistic music is one of the least jarring things about the film. His approach to the roaring twenties is to make the film roar, and boy, does it roar. Like a haemmorrhoidal lion. With sunburn. The film is a yabbering orgy of more-ishness; no sound is too much, no colour too garish, no cut too abrupt to let us know this was one swell era that just doesn’t come across in the rigidly analogue format that was a novel published in 1925.
Underneath all the slobbery excess and the over-designed munificence are the characters, who are considerably thinner than in Fitzgerald’s original, despite mouthing identical dialogue. This is largely down to poor casting and bad acting: Tobey Maguire, God bless him, is fit only for afternoon TV with his permanent look of fortunate surprise (no amount of radioactive spider bites will ever bestow a screen presence on Tobey). Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway is a cipher but he is not that empty. Carey Mulligan has never convinced me much before and she struggles badly as Daisy, she is playing an actor playing someone dressed up to resemble Daisy Buchanan. Leonardo di Caprio is, on the face of it, well cast as Gatsby, but he chews the 3D scenery up something awful. The ensemble acting is poor but you can hardly blame the actors involved; it doesn’t look like they were getting any direction worth talking about, not least from a man whose mise en scène is all over the place (and the 3D only makes it look worse).
The film captures the essence of the era, but not much of the flavour. It is also a bit annoying to see Nick’s narrative being couched in such an overt way as part of his later therapy sessions; what’s wrong with old-fashioned voiceover? Luhrmann’s Gatsby is a whirlwind of ineptitude from start to finish, and is surprisingly uninvolving. That said, it is not a travesty. If anything, it is too faithful to the book, or at least the period background to the book. It tries, as is common with any new contemporary version of a canonical novel, to show how different it is from all that have come before – it may even know the original novel better than Fitzgerald did himself. It probably would not have been a better film had it aimed a little less at the cultural history surrounding the novel, but a greater attention to the poor tenants of Fitzgerald’s novel would have at least made it slightly more watchable.
As bad as Luhrmann’s film is, it is admirable in many respects. It is like the uncouth distant cousins that show you up at weddings, all loud mouths, shirts the colour of a pack of Opal Fruits, propping up the bar. But they are still cousins and you cut them a bit of slack. Similarly, The Great Gatsby and its cheerful, blasé vulgarity is preferable to much of what passes for literary adaptations these days. Slavoj Zizek admires Ayn Rand because she betrays more readily the disingenuousness of mainstream capitalism, unlike real predatory capitalism’s more disciplined, streamlined advocates. In the same way, Luhrmann’s film shows up all the better the predatory pedantry of literary adaptions. It even clocks in at two hours twenty minutes, twenty shorter than Jack Clayton’s 1974 version, which looked right but had all the memorability of a wedding you have been invited to at the last minute.
My heart sinks when I learn of a book I like being adapted for the cinema, not because, as per the usual gripe, the film will ruin it (any great novel’s reputation is strong enough to long outlive the three to four weeks of PR inanity that surrounds the release of a film). No, the reason my heart sinks is because there are people out there who cannot read a novel without imagining how it would look projected on a screen, its costumes, its sets, its characters painstakingly reproduced. If that is what you’re thinking of when reading a novel, you’re missing the point. It’s a little like drinking a beer and wondering what it would taste like, frozen, as an ice lolly. Sure you can do it but why bother? A novel’s inner life and its outer structure are made of words, which is a sand-like substance, notoriously difficult to replicate on screen, but still the most interesting thing about the novel.
That’s not to say that novels (or plays, or even poems) should never serve as source material for films – there have been many fine films adapted from books, and there continue to be so. It is, however, depressing that we must be visited, every fifteen years or so now at this rate, with a new adaptation of a particular Dickens, Brontë, Jane Austen or Tolstoy, when few of those in the past have been terribly memorable anyway. Some filmmakers do get it right – Andrea Arnold’s recent Wuthering Heights understood the brute social relations that underlie the intense romance of the novel. Most adaptors of literary classics though are content to wallow in the crinoline, the fine teak wainscoting and the Received Pronunciation (American actors in particular are wont to apply RP to any character, of any nationality, from before the 20th century). That is why most film adaptations of classics bring little to the table and are instantly disposable, like the covers in a fast-food restaurant.
It is not only classics that are subject to this either; the film rights on practically every contemporary novel that makes a splash are instantly snapped up. It’s not too surprising – it is a relatively easy way for studios to make money, provided the production is not delayed for too long, and few writers can afford to say no. A strong contemporary novel will likewise survive the brief ignominy of being associated with an idiotic film adaptation, and will only gain in reputation from a good film treatment. But this industrial reproduction of hit novels rarely leads to good cinema – one need only look at the work of Stephen Daldry, who, it seems, cannot behold a Waterstone’s 3-for-2 table without thinking of getting into the cinematic pants of every book on it. This is why we should welcome more adaptations like Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, no matter how vulgar, how misplaced, how tin-eared they might be. Such violence done to the po-faced edifice of ‘literary’ cinema might sensitise people to the pedantry of the slavish adaptation and might lead people to enjoy the source text without wasting time ruminating over whether Keira Knightly or Carey Mulligan might make a better Maggie Tulliver.
The first thing that is puzzling about Mud is why it took twelve months to get a release after it screened at Cannes, particularly when Jeff Nichols’ previous film, Take Shelter was such a popular and critical success. Mud is in many respects more commercial than that film, with an arguably bigger-name cast (Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, as well as Nichols regular Michael Shannon); it is also a more conventional film, if one that is certainly a cut above most current Hollywood output.
The film starts off with two young friends Ellis and Neckbone (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) who secretly head out to a small island on the Mississippi in search of a boat they have heard is stuck in a tree. They soon discover there is someone living in it – a drifter who goes by the name of Mud (McConaughey); on the run from the law, he makes a deal with the youngsters, promising them the boat if they come back with food. The more practical Neckbone is initially wary of this Magwitch character but Ellis is more drawn to him, being an idealist who recognises something of himself in the older man. It soon becomes clear however that Mud is wanted for murder and as well as hiding from the law, he has to elude bounty hunters hired by his victim’s family. The two boys, both of them from impoverished fishing families, become embroiled in a drama that gets only messier as Mud tries to persuade his old flame Juniper (Witherspoon) to run away with him.
As in his two previous films, Nichols delivers a full and truthful portrait of life in small town America, in this case DeWitt, Arkansas. The youngsters, like their elders, have a resourcefulness born of poverty – they are adept bricoleurs, able to turn their hand to almost any type of manual exigency; they are already conscious of the fact that they cannot expect to rely on anything in life, what with their family’s livelihoods under threat from an increasingly officious river authority. The film presents a dense matrix of father figures, both absent and present and their confused offspring – Ellis has a strained relationship with his own father, Senior (Ray McKinnon), while Neckbone is an orphan, raised by his uncle Galen (Shannon) much as Mud was himself raised by Tom Blankenship (Shepard). It’s a laudable trope but one that is a bit overdone, not to mention over-populated; we get the point early on and the film lurches into cliche from time to time. Nichols’ men are fabulists, self-deluded and fatuous, who are far less rooted than their various long-suffering women, whom they nonetheless harbour bitterness towards.
The final act is another puzzling aspect of the film – it seems grafted on from another movie entirely. The denouement is both cluttered and contrived and it doesn’t help that the gang of killers on Mud’s trail are little more than cardboard cut-outs. I also felt that, having set up as ineffably a romantic rogue as Mud, who is like a Christy Mahon of the Mississippi, Nichols squandered an opportunity to give us a far more resonant, ambiguous ending, as he did in Take Shelter. It is no disgrace that Mud is a comedown after that film, which was, after all, probably the best American film of the past few years, but it could have still been better. A little more ambition and a touch more audacity might have raised it above the level of merely efficient.
The Past (Le passé) (Asghar Farhadi – France/Italy) 130 minutes
Having swept practically every award going, including the Best Foreign Film Oscar and the Golden Bear at Berlin, for A Separation, Asghar Farhadi makes his first film outside of Iran. The French-produced The Past gives Farhadi a fresh environment to work in, but it is very much in the vein of all his films to date.
Another separation takes place in this film – Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), a forty-something Iranian returns to Paris after four years back in Tehran to finalise his divorce from his French wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo). The divorce is an amicable one and is by far the least complicated thing in the film – it is quickly resolved in a brief scene, where the judge is a far less imposing presence than in A Separation, and Farhadi eschews the claustrophobic subjective camera that ratcheted up the tension of that film from the very beginning. The Past is a more slow-burning film and nothing much happens for the first hour, even though it is clear there are recriminations and painful secrets that are set to rise to the surface at some point later on.
The first hitch is Marie is now living with a new boyfriend, Samir (Tahar Rahim) and his son Fouad, and has not warned Ahmad in advance. But the conflict comes not there, as you might expect, but with Marie’s teenage daughter (from a relationship prior to Ahmad) Lucie (Pauline Burlet), who is absenting herself from the home with greater frequency and who is steadfastly set against her mother’s relationship with Samir. The latter’s wife is also in a coma, after an attempted suicide, seemingly after finding out about his affair with Marie. But this is still only the beginning of it, with the motives and resentments of all only being gradually divulged as the film progresses. The past of the title is also not quite as distant as its imposing bareness suggests.
The Past is an exquisitely crafted drama and Farhadi glides effortlessly into a filmmaking environment very different to the one he is used to. The performances are also excellent, particularly Rahim, who, even though it is only four years since he was revealed in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, already looks like a seasoned professional, he is an actor of a rare intelligence and maturity for someone so young. Bejo, more accustomed to comedy, also repays handsomely the surprising choice to cast her instead of Marion Cotillard, who dropped out. Mosaffa is world-weary but generous as the Persian voice of reason, who may not be quite as reasonable as he thinks. His character does however seem to be a bit underwritten – there is little real sense of the sort of relationship Ahmad and Marie had and you get the sense that he is there to function as part-catalyst, part-diegetic father confessor.
For all the film’s qualities, it lacks the internal dynamics of Farhadi’s Iranian work – the logistical and moral imperatives forced on his characters. A feature of his earlier films, Fireworks Wednesday and About Elly as much as A Separation is characters seeking to carve out autonomous spaces for themselves free from the interference of a hostile, prescriptive state. We see this in the hiring of the maid on the black in A Separation and the later efforts to buy her off when things go wrong; it is also implicit in the attempt by the holiday-makers in About Elly to resolve the disappearance of Elly, a girl they barely know, without getting the police involved. One character in The Past is similarly concerned by her relationship with authority – Naïma (Sabrina Ouazani), the young Maghrebine who works in Samir’s dry cleaners as an illegal immigrant. This provides the spur for one vital plot turn but the rest of the characters have more workaday causes of grief. The Past is not a lesser film for this but its drama is implicitly less intense – and less draining – than Farhadi’s films in his home country.
The Past has been very favourably received by critics at Cannes and it is likely to garner an award or two from Steven Spielberg’s jury, most likely for the acting or the screenplay. Farhadi intends to continue living and working in Iran, but in light of the trouble the authorities, piqued by his rapturous welcome in Hollywood, have given him, the option to make more films abroad is one to keep open. And, if The Past is anything to go by, he shouldn’t have any problem doing that.