The Artist swept the BAFTAs on Sunday night, taking seven awards including best film, actor and director. The Iron Lady, Hugo, Senna and Tinker, Tailor also took two awards each while Martin Scorsese was awarded a BAFTA fellowship, the British Academy’s highest honour. Nonetheless, the evening belonged undeniably to Michael Hazanavicius’ silent movie, adding another set of statuettes to his burgeoning trophy cabinet.
The Artist has swept both the critics and the awards this year. Backed by the influential Weinstein brothers the film had already won big at the Golden Globes, SGA and DGA awards before this latest haul. Aside from the best film, best director and best actor prizes, the movie also bagged prizes for its screenplay, make-up, cinematography and music.
Yet while it is undoubtedly an excellent and deserving winner, the predictability of victory has rather dulled this year’s awards season and caused a number of other strong productions to be overlooked. Thank heavens, then, for the only real shock of the evening, a win for Senna in the best editing category. Asif Kapadia’s real footage based account of Ayrton Senna’s life and times was acclaimed on release but has been largely forgotten in the last few months. A dual win today (it was also named best documentary) was not only a pleasant surprise but might just reignite some interest.
The Iron Lady, Tinker, Tailor and Hugo will arguably be more disappointed with their showings, although both The Descendants and Drive failed to win anything despite high billing. George Clooney will certainly be cursing his luck that a silent, independent French film should overshadow his starring turn as a Hawaiian property developer.
Despite this, the most predictable win of the entire night was probably Christopher Plummer’s for best supporting actor in Beginners. Plummer has virtually swept the board in his category, and Sunday was no exception. He plays a 75 year-old who finally comes out as gay and starts a new life before falling prey to cancer. The role has been widely acclaimed and, aged 82 but with few major awards, he appears to be making up for lost time.
The Skin I Live In also surprisingly edged A Separation in the contest to be named best foreign language film. Pedro Almodovar is one of the most decorated, and eccentric, living directors but the beaten Iranian piece is seen by many as one of the year’s outstanding productions.
127 Hours - Alexander Lynchehaun
127 Hours was the best film of 2011; others may have had smarter plots, faster action or better scripts, but none provided such a sheer, visceral thrill. Let me explain briefly: Aron Ralston was a climber who, having gone climbing unaccompanied and without telling anyone, found himself stuck with his arm under a boulder. 5 days later he cut himself free; it’s a gruelling premise, but then again, it’s a demanding film.
127 Hours is not for the squeamish; it is undeniably harrowing. From a relaxed beginning, the film crescendos. We follow Ralston from his home through an encounter with a couple of girls and onto the decisive fall, trapping him and crushing his forearm. Then, for 5 days, there ensues an increasingly desperate struggle for life, a testament to the human survival instinct. The film’s intensity is overwhelming despite a lack of gore, indeed it is not a sight but a sound which proves the film’s definitive gruesome moment. Aided by James Franco’s bravura performance, it is this frantic battle in such a claustrophobic environment which ultimately proves so compelling.
Unique and brilliant, 127 Hours is the standout film of the year.
The Fighter - Prithu Banerjee
Heard the one about a down-and-out-boxer barely surviving life suddenly finding inspiration and the form of his career to come out of nowhere, beat the odds and win the hearts of America? OK, it’s The Fighter, but The Fighter is not Rocky.
It’s the differences that make it the movie that it is. Micky doesn’t punch steaks in a refrigerator; he fights his dysfunctional, parasitic, emotionally vampiric hellhole of a family; the sisters with dead eyes and the mother who is slowly throttling the life out of him. He doesn’t have to worry about the press and how it portrays him; he has to worry about the press and how it affects his brother; the sad, infuriatingly naïve older brother with decayed memories of glory and a drug problem. The brother who keeps clawing him down with his stubbornness even as he offers Micky the boost into the limelight. It’s dark and gritty and dirty; and everyone plays it to perfection. Wahlberg is underrated as the wearily stoic Ward, Amy Adams is hellfire, whilst Christian Bale and Melissa Leo absolutely tear the screen apart as the brother Dicky and the mother Alice.
It’s depressing. It’s frustrating. It’s unbelievable. And it’s all true. And when Wahlberg leaps into the air at the end, when he punches the sky and cries into the camera, it’s hard not to grin maniacally and wipe away a tear of your own.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes - Hugo Gordon
Hopes were not high for Rise of the Planet of the Apes before it’s release – the seventh film in the series, a prequel to a remake no one liked. So imagine my delight when Rise turned out to contain not only the prerequisite incredible special effects and explosive action scenes, but also good acting, a lot of heart, and a great deal of intelligence.
While the entire plot – doctors create super-intelligent chimp, chimp leads primate revolution – could be guessed from a glance at the trailer, Wyatt was still able to insert some surprises – the moment Andy Serkis’ ultra-intelligent chimp Caesar let out his first word, a defiant ‘No!’, had the entire cinema on the edge of their seats.
Even more unexpected were the genuinely moving scenes between James Franco’s scientist, and his Alzheimers-suffering father, played by John Lithgow. Wyatt understands what the likes of Bay don’t seem to – it’s possible to make a great blockbuster without treating the audience like idiots.
Senna - Jonathan Looms
For a film to truly be great, it must have moments that stick in your mind months later. I don’t think I will ever forget riding in the cockpit with Senna during his last few turns at Imola, knowing what was about to happen. All sound seemed to be sucked from the cinema, nobody could take their eyes from the screen. And then, when the impact finally happens, waves of sadness pour over the audience. Senna is a film that sucks you into the life of an icon and makes it incredibly easy to empathise with them. But it also serves as a comprehensive character study of its subject.
It would have been easy to cut together a film featuring his most famous clips that would have pleased fans. But they tried to do so much more, serving his life story that offers something to both fans and outsiders. Beginning with his karting beginnings the film tracks through his Formula 1 career and examines his personal life, providing context for his wins against his Brazilian background. It’s an extraordinary documentary because it never has to tell you what he was thinking or feeling, you instinctively know. And you feel it to.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Ross Jones-Morris
So here we go. By far and away the most predictable ‘film of the year’ you’ll see on this page. Looking back of a whole year of film one usually expects to find oneself caught between two or three classics. A weird little horror you saw, a surprisingly intellectual blockbuster, that feel good film that came along just at the right time and hugely overinflated your view of it but you loved it anyway. Well there was no deliberation for me this year.
I write about films and looking back at the cacophony of bed-wetting excitement that accompanied Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s release from film critics everywhere back in September it’s only appropriate that come November I (and I’m sure ever other end of year retrospective) gush some more.
Some called it boring (it isn’t) and many apparently think that the secret service set film is about spying (it isn’t). Far from it, in reality it’s a film about middle aged men with fag ash on their badly tailored suits and suspicion in their hearts. It’s an exquisitely observed and old-fashioned meditation on the minutiae of suspicion and the numbed pain of betrayal amongst a group of unfulfilled and emotionally stifled men. Now I know that sounds pretentious but that’s because it probably is. God pretention can be wonderful.
The Tree of Life - Euan Lawson
The Tree of Life polarized the opinion of cinemagoers as soon as it came out; some hailed it as visionary and another tour de force from mysterious Director Terence Malick, others walked out, calling it pretentious ad boring. I am firmly of the former opinion.
At its simplest level, it tells the story of a father (Brad Pitt) struggling to understand how best to raise his children in 50s Texas; he is abusive yet gentle to them, and Malick manages to make every family scene both tense and poignant. On the other hand, the film simultaneously deals with the questions concerning the nature of existence. Around 20 minutes in, Malick unexpectedly takes the viewer back to the beginning of time, and presents wonderfully beautiful shots of planets, volcanoes and geysers- all without the help of 3D. The viewer cannot help but get swept up in the images which are both cosmic in scale but emotive, and one can only applaud the ambition of this incredible sequence.
The film is, admittedly, very slow moving, and requires patience to watch it, but the cinematography and story telling are skilled and artistic enough to keep you captivated. The acting too is first rate, from Pitt and from the now ubiquitous Jessica Chastain, and it fully deserved to win the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
X-Men: First Class – Vicky Fryer
X-Men: First Class not only broke the franchise’s curse, it delivered a glorious movie in its own right. It has everything X-Men should: superhuman powers, philosophical debates, heroes, villains, humour, action, and much more besides. Furthermore, it’s the X-Men in the 1960s: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. meets Bond meets superheroes. How is that not fantastic?
But, most importantly, it brought the franchise’s focus back to where it belonged: the characters. The relationship between the future Professor X and Magneto was always going to make or break this movie, and James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as a young Patrick Stewart and Ian MacKellan are so perfect you cannot imagine it otherwise. Their chemistry (not like that – although plenty of eyebrows were raised) is the film’s main strength: you genuinely believe in both their friendship and the tragedy of the film’s inevitable outcome. And isn’t it wonderful to have a superhero movie built on such a friendship?
Franchise-wise, it revived one of my favourites; action-wise, it provided all the fights and political schemes you could ask for; and character-wise, it was one of the strongest this year. No, it isn’t perfect. However, it has something else, slightly clichéd but accurate: `soul`.
Steven Spielberg first acquired the rights to make a Tintin movie in 1983. He commissioned screenwriter Melissa Mathison, with whom Spielberg had had sensational success on E.T: the Extra-Terrestrial, to write a script. Jack Nicholson was even approached about playing Captain Haddock. But that film didn’t get made. Spielberg was not satisfied with the script or that he could realise his vision for the film. What a sign of respect and love for the subject matter that one of the world’s greatest directors waited twenty five years before he thought he could make the movie the franchise deserved. The British public have hailed The Secret of the Unicorn as just that, spending 6.7 million pounds to see it since it opened last Wednesday. Innovative motion capture technology, a clever amalgamation of original stories and a stellar cast have led to a fun-filled romp that looks to be the best family film of the year.
This forms a stark comparison with another well known children’s character who has been committed to film over the last decade. The most interestingly filmed passage of the Harry Potter series appeared late in the octalogy; a stylised animation sequence that explained the legend of the Deathly Hallows. It was creative storytelling at its very best. Practically Spielbergian. Unfortunately, this was the exception rather than the rule for the series.
It is easy to see how such conservative films were made; legions of excited fans with equally large expectations, big business providing financial pressures, JK Rowling closely involved. Few people were surprised when they left the cinema having watched a narrowed version of their imagined literary world on screen. Did anyone actually prefer the films to the books? Independent of Harry’s written adventures, the films don’t stand up to great scrutiny. However, this is not surprising when what is supposed to be an overarching storyline is undertaken without a single auteur who knows how the story ends.
Making middle of the road family films is not a heinous crime. The logistical considerations involved make producing any film a great achievement. But when any film with the boy wizard involved is a sure-fire, hundred-million dollar hit, able to attract leading acting talent shouldn’t the audience expect more? These ‘open goals’ could be viewed as opportunities to really further cinema. Take risks, tell stories in creative ways, innovate! Recent book adaptations have provided breathtaking, cinematic films; We Need to Talk about Kevin, Drive and Tinker Tailor Solider Spy have all been great successes that function as films in their own right. Do not think that the feat is impossible with children’s characters either. Think of the countless Roald Dahl stories that have been inventively told on screen, most notably the recent Fantastic Mr Fox, Where the Wild Things Are and the timeless classic The BFG. During production on TTSS John Le Carré said to Tomas Alfredson not to do the book on screen. The book already exists. Make cinema. Just as Tintin was told through the eyes of Snowy so too could a Harry Potter film be told from a different point of view or in a more ingenious, cinematic way. Imagine films with Hagrid at their centre or that chart the rise and fall of Tom Riddle.
The Harry Potter film franchise has had many positive repercussions; practically singlehandedly creating a special effects industry in this country, putting familiar British faces on the global stage and giving John Williams an excuse to compose another sumptuous score. But it seems a shame that the films were made at a time when the hysteria and commercial pressures hurried the films into production; a shame that a director with a love and respect for the franchise wasn’t allowed to sit on the rights for twenty five years and bring a much loved children’s book to a subsequent generation; a shame that this opportunity to film a cohesive creative story wasn’t taken.
Call me a bleeding heart liberal but I think that women are a good thing. There it is, I’ve said it.
“But Ross” you shout, “you’ve got it all wrong, it’s the 21st Century!”. Garrulous as you are, you also happen to be correct. You see by now I think all those of sound mind agree that gender equality is a bloody good idea and that society bally well should have thought of it sooner, but sometimes people seem to find sexism where there was never any to be found.
Now as a man who has seen his fair share of trashy exploitation flicks, I’ve seen my fair share of ignorance as well. As a result I am all too aware of the presence of gender politics when it comes to movie criticism, but I also think that they shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of one’s viewing experience.
To clarify, I am by no means calling the esteemed Dame Helen Mirren a rabid feminist, neither am I assuming any particular views on her part, but recently she’s said something rather silly in relation to Tomas Alfredson’s summer praise-sponge Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy:
“The secret service always had a huge number of women working for them, and they played major roles in real life. But they were ignored for this film!” Speaking to The Times, she continued: “How many women were in that? I mean, come on. There weren’t any women in the 70s?”
Now I realise the possibly throw-away nature of this comment. As far as I know she has spoken no further on the subject and hasn’t said whether she was simply being factual or expressing a (heavily implied) opinion about some form of sexism in the film’s portrayal of the Secret Service. However, the point remains that there are many more viable targets ripe for a good old kicking in the knackers than a brilliantly intelligent slice of stylised 70’s Britain.
Even if the Secret Service employed exclusively women throughout the decade this fact would do nothing to diminish the success or impact of the (admittedly male dominated) film itself. Tinker Tailor is not about women, but neither is it about the Cold War or even the Secret Service. In reality it’s a film about middle aged men with fag ash on their badly tailored suits and suspicion in their hearts. Alfredson is an intelligent male director who rather than seeking to provide an historically accurate and overtly gender progressive portrayal of Cold War espionage has instead delivered an exquisitely observed and old-fashioned meditation on the minutiae of suspicion and the numbed pain of betrayal amongst a group of unfulfilled and emotionally stifled men.
Mirren’s comment was only minor and delivered with no real accusation or malice, but within it I think there lies a valid point that I feel must be made. Films can be stupid, racist, xenophobic, crass, ridiculous, amazing, heart-warming, fickle, ironic, postmodern (which as Annie Sprinkle would eruditely – if somewhat generally – put it, means never having to say you’re sorry), hilarious, dull and sometimes downright breathtaking. Films can also most definitely be misogynist.
Male dominance has certainly been an issue in the past. The Bechdel Test for example is a litmus test of sorts for the treatment given to women by a film. First suggested by a satirical comic stip it has grown from there into something altogether more serious but nevertheless (when looking at older fare especially) oddly valid. It’s requirements are basic and it’s foundations rooted in humour but throughout cinematic history women have often been unfairly ignored. It’s a well known fact of Hollywood that once an actress reaches 40 the fight for employment begins.
However there is hope yet. As Bob Dylan almost once famously put it; the times they are a-debatedly changin’, so when it comes to the good guys, let’s not cry wolf as to the plight of women in cinema. Especially when Michael Bay’s most recent offering grossed $1.1 billion worldwide.
It’s been a summer to remember for Tom Hardy. Currently filming The Dark Knight Rises, he is also primed for 2012 with a potentially lucrative mixture of roles including prohibition era gangster Al Capone and dystopian law enforcer Mad Max. With his Hollywood future becoming more and more assured with every passing day and the conclusion of the Batman franchise set for release in 2012, Hardy’s role as chemically enhanced super-villain Bane should surely help cement him as one of Hollywood’s most unlikely leading men. But if you can’t wait until next year to see Tom’s considerable heft heaving around your screen, he’s currently all over your local cinema like a infuriatingly gifted rash. When not schmoozing and crying his way through Tomas Alfredson’s masterful Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy he can presently be found pugilistically fisting many a face in the altogether less subtle Warrior. So, with all of these projects in the actor bag and his stock in Hollywood already sky high, the question remains; just where did it all go so right for London’s very own Edward Thomas Hardy?
Well, never one to shy away from a bit of the old ‘on-screen’, Hardy amorously burst onto the scene a whole ten years ago in Band of Brothers. Fast forward six years and his starring role 2007’s Stuart a Life Backwards earned him a BAFTA Television award nomination for Best Actor. Three years on from that and he wins a BAFTA Rising Star award. A year on from that? He looks poised to take Hollywood by storm, swiftly becoming the most in demand hard-nut type around.
But a barely sentient man’s Jason Statham Hardy is not. Never one to play to type, he is a private school educated, ex-alcohol and crack cocaine addict and (by his own definition) ex-bisexual with a self confessed feminine disposition. His masculinity he argues comes from overcompensating because he’s never felt like ‘one of the boys’. Not known to shy away from a fight however he reportedly started hitting the boys off-screen by taking up arms against the eminently armable (see Devil’s Advocate) Shia LeBeouf on the set of the upcoming The Wettest Country in the World - a fight that I’m sure was about as one sided as Rocky’s Rocky vs. Meat montage (albeit with a less charismatic lump of ham). But it’s this apparently cultivated hard man facade that suited him ideally for his true breakthrough film.
In 2009’s Bronson Hardy gave a heavily praised performance of nuanced menace, great presence and more unconventionally; gratuitously flailing genitals. The film’s focus on a man playing a role that may or may not be contrary to his true nature is something which Hardy evidently took to easily. It was also a role that isn’t your conventional studio fodder, succeeding as it did in the face of silly claims that the film glorified violence.
In a Hollywood producing groomed for glory stars such as LaBeouf and his Michael Bay championed ilk, the introduction to the big leagues of an odd looking British character actor who’s served his time through years of minor productions and supporting roles is encouraging. To put it simply, Tom Hardy is going to be huge.
When Alec Guinness starred in 1979’s BBC television adaptation of John Le Carre’s cold war espionage novel the action had the topical immediacy of a contemporary drama. 30 years on it’s a period piece and despite its Swedish director Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the most beautifully British slice of cinema I’ve seen in quite a while.
The plot as it stands at first seems rather straightforward. After George Smiley is dismissed from the British intelligence service (here called ‘The Circus’) he is unexpectedly called back in order to smoke out a suspected Soviet mole. The suspects are all very high ranking and in an ingenious piece of production design can usually be found meeting in a sound proof vault, brassily daubed in period glory. It’s a melting pot of tension and secrets and one which throughout the film frames Smiley’s investigation. I’d like to leave you to find out about the intricacies (of which there are many) of the plot itself however, so the less said about it the better really. Rest assured you’ll be kept guessing right until the end.
But what many people will end up buying their tickets for is the cast. As stunning an ensemble as one is ever likely to see in a cinema, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is littered with British greats. Some more established and some less. John Hurt plays Control, the head (and soon enough ex-head) of The Circus with all of the growling, enigmatic intensity at his not inconsiderable disposal. Colin Firth’s charismatic Bill Haydon is depicted with a consummate class that by now from Firth seems effortless. Toby Jones’s Percy Alleline is a controversial figure who the highly underrated actor brings to life with the most aggressive of demeanours and the Scottishest of accents, whilst Ciaran Hinds rounds off the top rankers and suspects as Roy Bland in a somewhat more underwritten role, but he does well.
It is two of the younger contingent on show however who equip themselves excellently and almost steal the show. The superb Tom Hardy as outcast Ricki Tarr and Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam carry much of the story and give blistering performances. This does inexorably seem to be the year of Hardy’s life as he is fast shaping up not only to be one of Hollywood’s biggest stars but also to be one of my favourite actors (anyone who remains unconvinced should go and see Bronson immediately for one of the best performances of the last few years).
However at the centre of all this we have Gary Oldman’s stoic and reserved George Smiley. A figure that may not immediately fit the bill of a spy in the sense we are used to. He is almost silent for the first act of the film and has the type of amorphous face and unimposing presence befitting a character much less important and ultimately much less interesting than Smiley in fact turns out to be. When someone is this unassuming however when they do decide to come to life it means all the more. There is nothing at all flashy about Oldman’s emotionally closed portrayal of Le Carre’s most beloved character, but he delivers a devastatingly brilliant performance here. It was a risk centring a film around such an unconventional protagonist but it’s a risk that pays off handsomely.
Director Tomas Alfredson (much like Smiley) finds glamour or overt excitement in nothing, lingering no more over deaths than on garishly patterned wallpaper or one of Smiley’s numerous early morning swims. Things just happen. Deaths are portrayed as having no great importance, nor does the camera linger or ever seem to point out how horrible this all is. There is a cold, callous brutality to everything whether it be relationships, deeply suppressed emotions or indeed the ever looming spectre of death. When one character must break all evident ties with his homosexuality in order to be better immune from blackmail, we simply get a 30 second scene in which his boyfriend storms out and he has a quiet moment to himself. It is never again mentioned but neither is it completely glossed over. Everyone involved definitely has their problems, everyone has sacrificed and everyone lives a facade. Terrible things just occur all the time. Emotions have their place, but throughout this place is almost entirely out of the eyes of their peers and for the audience in the cinema it is almost entirely off screen.
This air of emotionally restrained paranoia is all pervasive throughout. Many people see a niggling problem as being the brevity with which much of the plot is dispensed. They often cite that the mole is unmasked in completely unceremonious fashion, with little fanfare or build-up (save Smiley tensely eating some fantastically British Trebor Mints). This supposedly climactic event is dealt with as another incidental occurrence devoid of special meaning or cause for alarm. While this may not serve our conventional cinematic instincts all that well, it is a finale that is completely of a piece.
The plot itself – as thrilling and complex as it is – pales in comparison with the triumph of atmosphere that is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Alfredson’s staid and understated direction is a positively beautiful piece of mood and moderation. Excellently shot and artistically lit by Hoyte Van Hoytema with an eye for the traditional televisual 70’s aesthetic, it’s a world of fag ash, drab overcoats, middle aged men, compromise, routine incidental horrors and small, dilapidated industrial units. Short of a wonderfully crafted vignette about Ricky Tarr and his love for a Russian defector there is never even a hint of James Bond. Everything is a concession, everyone is overworked and haggard and as is brusquely summed up by Kathy Burke’s retired agent, everyone is “seriously under fucked”.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is quite simply stunning. If you leave feeling a little non-plussed don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that that is necessarily a bad thing. Much like the first time I saw There Will be Blood, I left the screening feeling slightly underwhelmed and oddly downbeat. With a little introspection however I decided that what I’d actually just seen was a triumph of cinema that was so unexpectedly different that my usual cinematic instincts need not apply. Second time round (as with Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece) I’m sure I’ll finish Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy feeling as ecstatic as I feel about it now. It is a truly unique work and one that I hope will be getting much consideration around awards season indeed. With a bit of luck come February we’ll be hearing the increasingly frequent cries of ‘the British are coming’ all over again, but looking at the talent on display here, I think it true to say that they never went away.
- Ross Jones-Morris