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The Piano
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Review: The Piano

Rarely can any actor have managed to convey so much with so seemingly little as does Holly Hunter in The Piano. Her character, Ada, has been mute since early childhood, and not once in this intense, almost melodramatic film does she utter a single word. Yet without ever overstating herself by a single twitch of her face, or a single gesture, Hunter manages to give us access – startlingly intimate access – to Ada’s thoughts, reactions, and beliefs. She allows us to care deeply for this austere, severe woman. It is the central frustration of The Piano that Hunter is nonetheless contained by a screenplay that denies her, and us, the chance to maintain that intimacy through the film’s arbitrary and muddled final act. Ada finds closure, of some mysterious kind, but we by that time have been alienated from her by the perverseness of the narrative, and so we cannot join her in feeling satisfied with how this strange film ends.

Jane Campion’s film – and it is very much a personal project for the much-praised writer/director – is set in 19th-century colonial New Zealand (Campion’s home country). Ada has been sent there to marry a man she has never met, Alisdair Stewart (the excellent Sam Neill). She is deposited on a beach with the only two things she can show real emotion for: her young daughter Flora (Anna Paquin), and her sole mode of personal expression – her piano. Alisdair, who is sensitive, but firmly practical, refuses to have the piano lugged through the jungle to his house. Left on the beach, it is claimed by another local man, George Baines (Harvey Keitel). Baines asks Ada to teach him how to play it, and suffering profoundly under the absence of her piano, she agrees. Yet what Baines really wants is simply to hear her play, for he is aroused – both spiritually and sensually – by her music. Soon he is asking her to let him do other things to her while she plays. He sells the piano back to her, one key at a time, in exchange for a series of erotic favours.

The symbolism is as overt as this description makes it sound. As an allegory of woman subjected to and imposed upon by man, the film is effective: one man refuses, for reasons of convenience, to let a woman use her voice; another man wants to hear that voice, but reduces it to a sexual quantity. Both men, in their differing ways, deny this woman her independent identity and her self-expression.

Hunter is frighteningly good at showing us the awfulness of this humiliation: with each successive infringement of Ada’s dignity, she shows us her contempt, her outrage, at being thus treated.

And all the while she endures, stoically, knowing she has no alternative but to submit.

Paradoxically, however, in the film’s second half Ada’s behaviour begins to be inscrutable, and, it must be said, seems frequently arbitrary. She does several things that simply do not correlate with what we have been to led to understand of her feelings and desires. At this point it becomes hard to escape the suspicion that Campion is deliberately obscuring Ada’s motives. Perhaps this is to challenge us by placing us in the same position as the film’s two key men. When we do not understand Ada ourselves, will we be any more accepting of her than Alisdair and George are? Yet there is also the hint of an implication that Ada simply exists on a superior, more pure emotional plane to those around her, and that if her decisions are not comprehensible to us, we ought simply to recognise that we cannot hope to understand her, and question no further. This alienates the viewer, and the result is that the dramatic denouements of the film’s final scenes carry far less of an impact than they should.

It is now more than twenty years since The Piano won the Plame d’Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, and it remains a critical favourite.

Yet it belongs in that small and difficult class of films that cannot be said to be successful works of art, but which are still worth seeing for the sake of their ambition and for certain distinctive virtues. Chief among those, in this case, are the central performances. Neill and Keitel are as good as they have ever been. And Hunter, above all, is remarkable. Silent, cold, and hard as iron, she nonetheless succeeds in being persuasively, shockingly, nakedly human.

 

PHOTO/aysesos

Kirsten Dunst The Virgin Suicides
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Of Virgins and Suicides

“You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.”

“Obviously Doctor, you’ve never been a thirteen year old girl.”

So begins “The Virgin Suicides,” an ethereal mystery about a family of suicidal neighbourhood girls, and the boys who loved them. First time director Sofia Coppola captures the twilight of adolescence, somehow both endless and fleeting. The boys, now men, narrate the film, looking back on the tragedies that struck the Lisbon family. The men are still fascinated. How could these young women, who’d been so popular and desired, have been so miserable?

The film’s presentation of the deaths is unnervingly calm, almost unreal.

How can the boys feel so unemotional about the deaths of the Lisbon girls, except for the way in which they remind them of their own fleeting youth? The film understands the misery and confusion of being young, but also the tragedy of its transient nature.

Kirsten Dunst’s Lux wakes up alone in the middle of a football field. It’s the morning after a school dance. She has just lost her virginity. Arriving home, Lux and her remaining siblings are locked away inside their home, a punishment for breaking curfew. The Lisbon girls become guarded by their parents, trapped in an ivory tower stuffed with records from the 50s and soft toys. At night, Lux retreats to the roof, wrapped in a blanket, cigarette in hand, an adolescent siren calling out to the neighbourhood boys, who offer up one of their number every night to keep her company. The younger boys watch these rooftop rendezvous from across the street – entranced, awestruck and terrified. Lux holds court on the roof, as fascinated by her audience as they are with her.

The film becomes about the male gaze, about the simultaneous idolisation and protection of the feminine.

Coppola’s camera loves Kirsten Dunst, all long blonde hair and toothy smile. She dances for us in front of the camera, twirling in slow motion. She’s a stone fox. But Coppola’s greatest asset is her capacity to return this gaze onto the audience. Her feminine sensibility imbues the film’s leering stare with the perspective of its female subjects. They seem to be looking right back out at us, through the pastel colours and soft rock soundtrack, through the knowing stare of Dunst’s Lux, who occasionally glances right into the lens. In this way, the girls’ real selves peer out through the memories and projections of the boys who remember them.

The film becomes a commentary on the cinematic medium itself, particularly in the gendered way it depicts coming of age narratives.

By the end of the film, the causes of the suicides remain elusive, just out of reach. The film has led us to regard these girls more as puzzles than people, unknowable and unsolvable. We see them as little more than a mystery. Perhaps this is how it always was.

And so we’re left, like the boys, consumed by an enigma.

 

PHOTO/David Zellaby

Pride miner photo
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Review: Pride

Anyone who has yet to see the new British comedy Pride should do so as a matter of urgency.

In the fine tradition of The Full Monty and Billy Elliot, Pride takes a bleak aspect of recent history, the deindustrialisation of the 1980s, and injects it with not only a fresh pathos but also a dose of irresistible warmth and laughter, not to mention a perfectly judged soundtrack.

Each main character comes of age politically or personally, be they in their twenties – the young gay ingénues of LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) – or in their sixties – the busybodies of the insular mining village in South Wales, who do their best, by and large, to treat the gay activists hospitably.

In particular, the character of Joe (or ‘Bromley’ as he is known affectionately to his new friends), played skilfully by George MacKay, who is a fictional addition to what is in essence a historical re-enactment, provides a powerful illustration of coming of age on a number of levels. We meet Joe, a boy from suburbia (with all suburbia’s negative connotations), as he is swept up by the London Gay Pride march of 1984, unwittingly or perhaps surreptitiously; through the march he meets the other activists who shortly come together to form LGSM. Aged twenty, he is told he is still below the age of consent for gay sex – equalisation did not happen, remarkably, until 2001 – and boldly continues to play a part in LGSM as it attaches itself to its first mining community in the midst of the nationwide miners’ strike. He tells his parents he is on a residential cookery course when he goes down to Wales with the others.

The many photographs he takes, along with newspaper cuttings concerning the gay movement, are later discovered by his sister and parents, who are evidently shocked and disapproving of Joe’s homosexuality. Although Joe is not thrown out onto the street, as many young men undoubtedly were, he feels unloved and dedicates himself anew to LGSM. The ‘Pits and Perverts’ benefits gig of 1985 sows the seeds of his first love affair.

By the time of the Pride march of 1985, he turns 21, and in the film’s final comic flourish he is given a ‘21 today’ badge by his friends with the word ‘legal’ written on in marker pen. Joe therefore comes out as a member of the gay liberation movement, comes of age as a sexual being by losing his virginity, comes of age in the literal sense, and comes of age as a rounded human being, fighting for the worthiest of causes – by implication, the focus of gay activism by the end of the film turns sharply from the miners to survival, once the activists realise the full horror and tragedy of the growing AIDS crisis.

Not only for fifty-somethings (like my parents) who can remember this grimmer time, but for young people like me who understand angst, protest and who are eternally grateful for the freedoms the previous generation fought for, this film is indescribably moving.

It is also uproariously funny and full of great synthpop songs: Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Two Tribes’, Dead or Alive’s ‘You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)’, King’s ‘Love & Pride’, to name but three. It is part bildungsroman, part rom-com, part historical drama, part musical. It is brilliant.

PHOTO/Hugh Llewelyn

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Downton Abbey: Where are we now?

Downton Abbey has, since 2010, been praised for its costumed elegance and all-encompassing entertainment value, but also criticised for its leisurely pace, its futile storylines and its blasé approach to the details of history. For some, it is an emotionally gripping period romp, but for others it is nothing more than a soap opera dressed up in First World War garb. Its plots are often silly, and its dialogue sillier to an audience accustomed to a more liberal society, and after the crushing special that ‘ruined Christmas’, and the departure of two of the series’ shining lights in Dan Stevens and Jessica Brown-Findlay, season four felt lethargic and directionless. Episodes passed without any moments of note, and while the stakes were raised for some, most of it failed to live up to the energy of the World War One stories of earlier years. It even had some yearning for the time the dastardly Thomas kidnapped and then rescued Lord Grantham’s dog – a dramatic highlight indeed.

But Julian Fellowes and his team were not to be undone.

Though it opened to disappointingly low viewing figures, season five restored some of the impetus to the Abbey, with plotlines both upstairs and downstairs, old and new, bringing new movement when everything was grinding to a halt. There was, of course, the usual assortment of trivial strands and wasted characters; Daisy’s struggling with maths got off to a slow start, the Barrow-Baxter conflict still lacked the weight it requires and even Edith’s secret child, a plot line which ought to carry more interest than the rest, felt like filler more than anything else. But elsewhere, other characters were in their elements. Maggie Smith, ever-mischievous and eternally feisty, took her scheming to new heights in her attempts to stay high in the pecking order, dragging Penelope Wilton, who is rather too dry on her own, up with her. Branson (Allen Leech), or Tom, if you would prefer, was embroiled in more controversy over his relationship with the strong and opinionated schoolteacher Sarah Bunting, whose praise of the new Labour Prime Minister sent shockwaves across an already tense dinner table.

And then there was the fire. Like all great Downton moments, it had such a momentous potential, and could have sent the lives of all into disarray. Still, it ended up satisfyingly easy to resolve, and only damaging a single room (but not without ruining a couple of reputations in the process). And typically, Thomas was there to save not only the day, but also his own skin. For such an obviously evil guy, he has a despicably charmed life.

All the usual components of a Downton series were present. The threatening – or exciting, depending on who you ask – prospect of change was ever-present, waved in the audience’s faces in the political debate, the shifts in power or more simply in Daisy’s pondering of the future. That Lord Grantham is shocked whenever there is a challenge to his stately way of life is remarkable, given how often it happens, and it would be a surprise if there were no more before Christmas. Another staple, the silly dialogue, remained as entertaining as ever. The season opener’s winner had to be Michelle Dockery’s ‘I’m going upstairs to take off my hat’. There were also the facial expressions, ranging from the shocked and disgusted, courtesy of Hugh Bonneville and Jim Carter, to the shrewdly suspicious from Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan), and Lady Mary couldn’t miss out on an opportunity to take a sharp verbal jab at her sister.

Classic Downton.

But it would only be Downton if something truly banal snatched the limelight from a more orthodox source of excitement. And it delivered in style as Molesley (Kevin Doyle) tried to fight the aging process to disastrously conspicuous results. Like the Dowager Countess, Molesley needs no help to create some comedy, but while hers is based on her savage tongue and cutting put-downs, his rest solely on a unique buffoonery.

With a new lease of life, Downton Abbey must answer some of its questions before it asks any more.

What exactly has Bates done? Will Mary settle on one man from her ever fluctuating pool of suitors? What happened to that Gregson chap in Germany? And will Lady Rose find something useful to do, or will she remain a nuisance forever?

The solutions could be exciting, or criminally tedious, but only time will tell. Until then, we can expect more raised eyebrows, more wonderful costumes and more ludicrous side stories in the meandering towards resolution. We can only hope that the drama of the series opener is sustained, and that everything stays at Matthew Crawley-era levels of entertainment, rather than lapsing into the pointless and forgettable. Fellowes has at his fingertips great potential both in terms of plot and in terms of actors (Anna Chancellor was brilliant in the opener, but Richard E. Grant could take things to new heights). Whether he takes full advantage of it remains to be seen.

 

PHOTO/Bas Sijpkes

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Review: Gone Girl

Only one word can really describe how I felt leaving the screening of Gone Girl this week.

Disturbed.

The story begins when protagonist Nick Dunne (Affleck), receives a call from a nosy neighbour whilst at work, alerting him to the fact that his front door is wide open and his cat is sat outside the house. Nick returns home to find his wife, Amy (Pike), gone and glass tables overturned. It’s Nick and Amy’s fifth wedding anniversary and something is amiss.

The police are called and an investigation follows. This investigation soon becomes America’s biggest news story as the media discovers that Amy, a beautiful New Yorker, and the inspiration for America’s favourite children’s books, Amazing Amy, is presumed to have been murdered by her cool and calm husband, Nick.

I did not kill my wife. I am not a murderer.

These two phrases are repeated again and again by Nick as he becomes the primary suspect in the investigation into his wife’s disappearance. As time goes on you begin to hate Nick more and more as it becomes glaringly obvious that he has been lying to the police and is withholding information.

True to the book, this film is told from the alternating perspective of Nick and Amy. Nick’s narrative is told in the present, whilst Amy’s gives us a glimpse into how the relationship between Nick and herself has developed over the course of their marriage. It is from Amy’s narration that you begin to see the cracks in Nick’s story – or is it the other way round? Is Nick lying? Or is Amy lying? Maybe they’re both lying? (Good luck trying to wrap your head around this one.)

You ever hear the expression that the simplest answer is often the correct one?

Actually, I’ve never found that to be true.

Keep this in mind when you think of Gone Girl, because I guarantee that you will not be able to predict the outcome of this film. Around half way through this film, a huge plot twist is revealed that changes everything. Prior to this game changer you’re probably thinking that you’ve got it all sussed and wondering how they could possibly drag out the outcome of this story for another one and a half hours. Perhaps if you’re a thriller fanatic, you’re still not quite convinced that all is as it seems, but either way, you won’t be prepared for just how dark and disturbing this film gets. When you think that this story has reached its peak, it just gets darker and darker and darker to the point where you begin to seriously question the mental stability of the scriptwriter, and author, Gillian Flynn. How could someone write a tale this disturbing? Possibly the most disturbing thing, however, is that this film ends with a cliff-hanger – the story is not over and I dread to think where Fincher and Flynn will take us next.

Quite simply, this film is a masterpiece.

Gone Girl combines a darkly chilling tale that cleverly analyses some of the big questions of our time (including gender stereotypes, marriage, even the obsession with celebrity) with a near perfect cast and script, all of which is delivered under Fincher’s brilliant direction. Rosamund Pike’s performance as Amy will stay with you long after you have left the cinema screen in what is probably one of the most mesmerizing performances of the year, which places her as a serious contender for ‘Best Actress’ at next year’s Oscars. Gone Girl also stands in good stead to be nominated for numerous other awards, Best Score, Best Editing, Best Director and Best Picture just to name a few, but with a few months to go, we’ll just have to wait and see. Impeccably crafted, this is not one to miss.

 

PHOTO/substance

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Ghost World: A tale of fitting in

Adapted from Dan Clowes’ adult comic book of the same name, Ghost World can be described as a collection of moments depicting a near-universal transition: the end of high school and formal education, to finding a job, and the other realities associated with adulthood (or thereabouts).The protagonists are two teenage girls, Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson); best friends, comrades in arms, connected by their judgemental outlook but increasingly alienated by their diverging paths.

The most refreshing aspect of this film initially is Enid and Rebecca themselves. For once, these teenage girls are not represented as shallow airheads. Instead, their characters could be considered an inspiration for Ellen Page’s Juno; blunt, sarcastic, judgemental. Incredibly judgemental, in fact. “I just hate all these extroverted, obnoxious, pseudo-bohemian losers,” sneers Enid after being approached by a guy advertising his upcoming music gig. Much like Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield, phonies seem to be Enid and Rebecca’s greatest enemies. But their disdain is not merely limited to the hipsters of their school and town; whilst watching an ‘indie’ comedian on TV, Enid remarks, “if he’s so weird, how come he’s wearing Nikes?”

Rebecca saying that a guy gives her a “total boner” is another highlight. This candidness is appealing because it is relatable.

As the movie progresses, it becomes apparent that whilst Rebecca is preparing herself for the realities of adulthood and is perhaps growing out of her judgemental teenage years, Enid is struggling. She inadvertently befriends an outcast who, in his mid-forties, has only an extensive record collection to be proud of. Seymour (Steve Buscemi) also finds himself on the outskirts of society: “I can’t relate to 99% of humanity,” he says after yet another failed date. Enid begins to realise that whilst things that seemed like they’d last forever – High School, her and Rebecca’s friendship – are over, there are some things that do stay the same.

It is at this point that Ghost World, which some would interpret as a ‘coming-of-age’ film, makes a statement many of us don’t want to hear: struggling to fit in doesn’t stop when adolescence is over. Some individuals spend their whole lives not quite understanding the people around them.

If you’re looking for a feel-good ending or reassurance that everything will be alright, then you won’t find it here. What you will find, however, are two very relatable girls and a story that, whilst containing almost universal experiences, is also incredibly insightful; a jarringly accurate portrayal of young womanhood, at times amusing, at times overwhelmingly depressing, but wholly relatable.

 

PHOTO/davidzellaby

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