Tuesday, 24 June 2014


Considering the era in which it was created, the portrait now hanging in Scone Palace, Perthshire, ancestral seat of the Earls of Mansfield, illustrates a remarkable scene. In it, two women of the Mansfield lineage are displayed standing proudly together, on the right Lady Elizabeth Murray, on the left her cousin, Miss Dido Belle Lindsay. Miss Lindsay, holding a quietly vivacious look in her eyes, seems, almost, to be moving, leaning forward slightly, body turned away from the anonymous artist. She is also black. 

The painting, dating from 1779, would be a fascinating one even in the absence of Belle, Amma Asante’s handsome sophomore feature, but with its release, the inspiring likeness invokes a near mystical power. In truth, little is known about this exotic young woman and Asante’s film — bearing all the hallmarks of a luscious, beautifully scored period drama — attempts to fill in the considerable gaps. Stumbling on occasion, it retains a gentile shape thanks to predictably strong performances and a compelling glimpse at the subversion of the British class, and caste, system at the height of its 18th-century imperial pomp. 

As the title suggests, Dido Belle Lindsay is at the heart of it all. An illegitimate “mulatto" child born in the West Indies to an African slave and an English sailor, she is rescued from poverty at a young age, in the wake of her mother’s death, by her father, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode). With a crucial naval voyage pending, he entrusts her into the care of his uncle, Tom Wilkinson’s upright William Murray, Lord Chief Justice and 1st Earl of Mansfield. 

Entitled to an upbringing in keeping with her bloodline, Dido is installed in Murray’s loving household as a high-ranking family member and companion to his other great-niece, Elizabeth. Refined and educated, Dido, nevertheless, occupies a strangely anomalous position within the otherwise tightly controlled hierarchy, her low birth and colour render certain things impossible — dining with guests being one notable taboo. At the same time, her heritage dictates that aristocratic surroundings are far from inappropriate. 

In the title role, Gugu Mbatha-Raw handles her tricky character with accomplished confidence, drawing on the tensions inherent to the social mores of the age and conveying profound charm in what could be an otherwise bland role. She ably holds up under the weightier issues at hand as her awakening coincides with the seminal Zong case, an insurance fraud appeal on which Wilkinson’s enlightened jurist is set to rule. Centered around the deliberate drowning of human cargo by a slave ship’s crew, the court action is at the vanguard of the battle against slavery.

Granted, such abstract legalities are fairly mild in the context of similarly horrific events brazenly depicted in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad or Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, but it is fitting that they remain mere stories here. Dido’s world, regardless of her background, is a delicate one, unspoiled by vulgar realities, though she becomes enchanted, nevertheless, by the noble ideals of the abolitionist movement.

Whatever the historical accuracy of the portrayal, it is through the intertwining themes of race and patriarchy that Asante’s film excels to an intriguing degree. That Dido should feel burdened by the shade of her skin is sadly inevitable given the fact that racial sensitivities were minimal at best and multiculturalism non-existent. Her subtle struggles with an identity few understand or accept — whether it is properly brushing her wild hair or tearfully clawing at herself in a moment of despair — are affecting, finely observed flashes of intimacy in a film prone to exploring broader issues. 

She recognises, too, the significance of the famous portrait, commissioned by Murray, in which she is to stand as an equal with her white relative. Early on, Asante notes the young Dido’s fascination with those august paintings in the gallery of her new home. Figures who look very much like she does are featured therein, each peripheral and supplicant. Asked to pose, Mbatha-Raw captures the confused gratitude of gaining prominence, of being awarded her birthright. 

Indeed, Asante finds interesting parallels between the slave trade, a mighty edifice propping up the wealth of an empire, and a society in which cousin Elizabeth, played with brio by Canadian actress Sarah Gadon, requires a marriage for advancement and male-dominated financial security. “We are their property,” she whispers mournfully. It is with comparable insight that Dido realises the enviable position her own unusual circumstances, and an unexpected inheritance, have afforded her: "I have been blessed with freedom twice over.” These twists of fate grant empowering autonomy beyond most peers of her sex. 

Nuance does not, unfortunately, run throughout. Miranda Richardson and Tom Felton form a faintly cartoonish double act as a mother and son seeking to shore up their family’s legacy. Richardson is a wonderful actress yet is allowed to do little more than scheme and offer casual prejudice, while Felton appears determined to carve out an archly villainous post-Hogwarts niche. This preening brute wastes more effort scowling at Dido than entertaining the misplaced affections of the exquisite Elizabeth and his sneering racism is both gratuitous and completely without discernible cause. 

In Sam Reid’s John Davinier, the film has its crusading lawyer and Dido her immediately obvious love interest. Their relationship is overly fraught, however, and potentially irritating, every tremulous conversation, from the first to the last, laced with wholesome respect and admiration, each exchange conducted on the verge of tears. In the eagerness to underscore Davinier’s supreme worthiness, his humble purity, Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay have omitted to make him particularly interesting. 

Thankfully, Wilkinson’s presence is as steady as ever. Cinema’s go-to man for layered upper-class elders, one might imagine him to be phoning it in at this stage. Not so. The veteran thesp delivers, once again, a steely turn as a great figure with hard-grafting roots that serve him well in remaking the unjust laws of men, someone who cannot fail to be influenced by the sense of doing the right thing. At his side, Emily Watson’s graceful, flinty wife is truly brilliant and Penelope Wilton constitutes an added bonus as his forthright spinster-sister. 

Melodrama it may possess but Asante undoubtedly succeeds in grasping the tenderness of the tale. There is genuine subtext also, a confirmation that we would be best defined by our characters before anything else and the direction is assured enough to suggest that Asante has more to offer. By turns confident and grandly realised, Belle’s elegance hides a forceful spirit. 

This is a slightly edited version of an article which first appeared here

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, Octavia Spencer

Director: Ryan Coogler

Available on: Netflix

That race remains an awkward fixture in America’s collective consciousness should come as a surprise to few. In the era of Barack Obama, its role in the continental melting pot has become even more pointed and antagonistic, the idiotic right-wing proclamations that the United States now exists in a place beyond racism being undermined every time another black male dies for reasons stemming from the hue of his skin.

In her seminal 2010 study of the modern prison-industrial complex, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s suggests that public consciousness of prejudice is shaped only by the most ‘extreme expressions of individual bigotry, not by the way in which it functions naturally, almost invisibly… when it is embedded in the structure of a social system.’ Fascinatingly, Fruitvale Station, talent-to-watch Ryan Coogler’s searing directorial debut, captures that contention with a maturity many veteran filmmakers often fail to display.

Offering no judgement and little commentary, Coogler, nevertheless, produces a work of rare power; neither obscene nor violent, its message burrows to the core of Western society’s ongoing struggle with diversity and the residue of deep-seated maladies. Indeed, as recent local events continue to suggest, such problems do not reside solely on the far side of the Atlantic.

A darling of last year’s festival circuit — it won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance — the film, based on real-life events, depicts the shooting of a 22-year-old black man at Oakland’s Fruitvale metro stop on 1st January 2009. Returning from the new year celebrations in San Francisco, Oscar Grant was involved in a fracas on the train. Dragged from the carriage by a team of hyper-aggressive transit police, Grant and his friends were manhandled and detained for no specific reason. In the ensuing struggle Grant would be fatally wounded by an officer who claimed to have mistaken his firearm for a tazer. 

Being 2009, this was, of course, captured on video and the confused, chilling, pre-HD images flicker across the screen before the titles roll. The remaining time is spent with Grant, living out 24 hours in the company of this anonymous and struggling ex-con, a statistic on paper, perhaps, but a beloved son, father and partner. 

From the beginning, the central player is captured in handheld close-up, coloured with intimately human shades. There is admirable frankness in addressing his personal infidelities and history as a luckless former low-level dealer — a victim of the preposterous war on drugs — but, equally, Coogler is keen to highlight Grant as neither unusual nor especially remarkable. He is no different from anyone else and, in Michael B. Jordan, the director allows a fine actor to carry this narrative forward.

The Wire and Friday Night Lights were two of the past decade’s finest television dramas and ardent fans of both will be familiar with Jordan’s confident, hugely watchable presence. In each series the young performer portrayed misguided, yet sensitive, products of the streets. He invites empathy once again, casting Grant as an individual caught up in events larger than himself. 

There is a quiet tragedy in the various unexceptional occurrences that come and go for much of the film’s duration: Grant drops his girlfriend to work and his little girl to school; he stops for petrol; he witnesses a dog hit by a car, cradling the animal in his arms as it slips away; he begs his old boss for a job, then threatens the man when it is not forthcoming; and he is assiduous in attending to a family birthday party. 

To hustle is to live in the notoriously hardscrabble surroundings of Oakland, California, as much a feature of the daily grind as the quest for dignity. A potential cannabis deal is set against a flashback to Grant's last stint in prison, where the desperate need to embrace his mother (the always superb Octavia Spencer) is juxtaposed with the kind of jailhouse threats that will surely come back to haunt the issuer on the outside. Peppering his dialogue with authentic localised slang and vocal tics, Jordan imbues his character with an endearingly honest humanity.

Whatever the setting, it all represents the small, ordinary canvas onto which Coogler paints his larger themes of race, crime and inequality before the law. 

In many ways, Obama’s historic success underscores much of what goes on here. In the the abstract, his accession to the White House was a boon for the African-American community. With a hispanic girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), and an adorable daughter, Grant’s existence represents the humble post-racial aspirations of the country’s better nature. On the other hand, however, the Obama experience is a remarkable one, rarefied even. It shares few parallels with the life of a kid from Oakland and there is no small measure of symbolism in the fact that Grant should be slain in those halcyon months between the president’s election and his inauguration. 

The key incident, inevitable from the opening seconds, delivers the requisite visceral horror when it eventually arrives. Grant’s demise, in particular, is utterly heartbreaking, his mere profile inducing mass psychosis in those sworn to uphold, rather than trample, his rights. At the crucial point Jordan manages to convey an affecting mix of physical pain and a tearful sense of betrayal; the realisation of how this moment will impact those around him dawns long before he closes his eyes forever. 

Fruitvale Station is a compelling, essential picture, a meditation on the destructive corrosiveness of Alexander’s invisible and embedded structures. If there is anything to take away, it is the fact that Coogler has managed, remarkably, to craft a film about racism that pivots not on recognisable prejudice but on an insidious function of the system. For the Oscar Grants of the world, the deck may already be stacked.

An edited version of this article was first published here

Monday, 9 June 2014

Venus in Fur

There are few current film directors who can boast as cinematic a résumé as Roman Polanski. The timeless likes of Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby and The Pianist sit proudly upon it but, throughout his controversial career, the exiled filmmaker has occasionally been attracted to the sheer theatricalism of the humble stage. 1994’s Death and the Maiden would be followed, eventually, by the quite brilliant Carnage in 2010, both being filmic adaptations of original plays. 

It is to this source then that Polanski returns once more with Venus in Fur, his newest exploration of theatre’s unique power. Taking place entirely within the confines of some faceless, crumbling auditorium, his film about a play — based, in turn, on David Ives’s play about a play — might, for all its arch storytelling, shudder under the weight of its own intensity but it is, nevertheless, a wickedly clever exploration of sexual domination. 

A two-hander, and Polanski’s first completely French language production, Venus in Fur features Mathieu Amalric as Thomas, the frustrated director-adapter of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s S&M opus, Venus in Furs. Uninspired by the actresses seeking the lead female role, Thomas is about to depart his somewhat ramshackle Parisian playhouse when, like a warped Mary Poppins, the disorganised, gum-chewing, curse-throwing Vanda (Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner) tumbles through the door, late, rain-soaked and desperate to read for him. 

While ignorant of the material’s significance and possessing only a rudimentary knowledge of Thomas’s highbrow stylings, Vanda is a charming aspirant. With the aid of her enthusiasm and a treasure trove of strangely appropriate costumes, she convinces the onscreen director not just to hear her out but to participate in her instantly fantastic audition. From that point on, the boundaries between fiction and reality are blurred, if not rubbed out altogether as Vanda, her true motivations unclear, uses the very words that Thomas has written to drive him down a forbidden path. To wit, the sense that he is deeply connected to Sacher-Masoch’s outlook is never far away.

The piquancy between the two actors might otherwise dissolve if French were not the means by which they were communicating. In their sultry mother tongue, however, Amalric and Seigner luxuriate in the skewed eroticism of the interplay. The former, a wonderfully chameleonic actor, tones down his better-known, preening Bond-villain sensibilities in favour of something infinitely more repressed and his resemblance to a young Polanski will not go unnoticed. Indeed, the charged reference to modern society’s focus on child sex abuse represents more than a simple throwaway line when spoken by a man bearing such physical similarities. 

Next to him, Seigner is an undeniably vibrant presence. Curvaceous and oozing sensuality, she is a long way from her ethereal, waif-like breakout role in Frantic, her husband’s coolly paranoid 1988 Euro-thriller. Here the actress is reassuringly confident and, in keeping with the encroaching influence of the play’s obvious themes, increasingly tyrannical. 

From the beginning, Seigner strides around the set, creating more conducive lighting, groping the faintly obscene cut-outs of the naff Belgian Western with which the production is sharing a space and manipulating the malleable Thomas with stunning ease. She flits from the script to her own thoughts, conveying a nuanced distinction in character traits between these two versions of herself, one grounded, the other a scheming dominatrix. It is masterful stuff.

At his roots, of course, Polanski is a cinephile and he has added subtle flourishes here and there to heighten the immersive experience, from little sound effects accompanying the miming of actions by Thomas and Vanda to the clever italicising of subtitles when the dialogue shifts from spontaneous conversation to scripted verse. Tellingly, the latter comes to hold sway as the drama rolls on, Thomas’s thoughts and those of his inner submissive conflating on a profound level. 

Vanda, too, appears caught up in the facade. That said, her behaviour is more knowing, more cynical; she even manages, in one subversive exchange, to deconstruct the playwright’s safely unexciting existence, a lingerie-clad devil on the shoulder. Whatever this unpredictable starlet’s intentions, humiliation of her partner seems a priority and she seizes her chance with aplomb before the end, retaining the power while reversing the rehearsed roles with visceral consequences. 

That there is an element of farce to it all is unsurprising given the ludicrous premise yet, darker still, the inevitability of a Greek tragedy hangs over the bizarre finale. Vanda, enraged and cavorting in the nude, invokes Dionysus, the God of ecstasy and the great punisher of apostates in The Bacchae, an inspiration to the now stricken, subjugated Thomas in the crafting of his perverse work. 

Such is the tone. Dense and often stifling, Polanski’s latest foray onto the trodden board is a witty and ambitious entry from which it is almost impossible to escape. Taken at face value, and with an aspirin, one cannot fail to be amused. 

An edited version of this article was first published here

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Fading Gigolo

It is no coincidence that Woody Allen should form so central a role in Fading Gigolo. John Turturro’s newest film as director, writer and star shares DNA with Allen’s coterie of evocative New York tales. Annie Hall and Manhattan were loving odes to the fabric of the great metropolis; Turturro’s newest project is similarly steeped in the city’s aura, existing in the faintly bohemian, off-the-beaten-track environs of Brooklyn, Soho and the Lower East Side. 

Taken at face value, its themes, curious double act and general location invoke Midnight Cowboy but, in truth, this a sweet and delicate picture which opts for whimsy instead of grit. 

As always, Allen employs his witty Jewish chatterbox schtick to portray struggling rare book proprietor Murray Schwartz. In packing up his unprofitable store — located next to a faceless Staples outlet — Murray floats the idea that his friend and assistant, Fioravante (Turturro), take up the opportunity to begin life as a Don Juan for hire. The older man’s glamorous dermatologist has, believe it or not, suggested to her patient that she would be open to a threesome with her curvaceous friend and a willing stranger. Spotting a financial opportunity, Murray convinces Fioravante to go along with his scheme and answer the good doctor’s call. A humble measure of success and cash quickly flow their way. 

As cinematic pimps go, Murray is hardly typical. His clever patter is a real joy to behold and as he expands his scope of operations, there is never a hint of sleazy hucksterism. Instead, his motivations are essentially low key: he spends money on a new couch for his girlfriend and her fantastically amusing children. Beyond that, he is merely occupying his own time. As he casually chats to a client on the phone while perusing various items of lingerie, one is struck by the fact that even after all these years, Allen — making a rare appearance in another person’s movie — is still the most watchable person on screen. 

Turturro, too, is a magnetic personality. Cool, suave and mildly sophisticated, this escort is, in fact, anything but fading. Indeed, it is easy to forget that this quietly charming professional lothario, fond of ornate flower arrangements and walks in the park, is the same goggle-eyed oddball who has, for so many years, served filmmakers as diverse as the Coen brothers and Michael Bay. Yet, Turturro is an accomplished auteur away from his more notable work with both Mac and Romance and Cigarettes displaying his facility for nuanced drama. 

With Murray’s assistance he is soon servicing both Sharon Stone, the adventurous doctor, and Sofia Vergara, her predatory ally. While it is not hard to see the reasons for Turturro choosing to bear these burdens, he does an admirable job in portraying Fioravante as more than a cold womaniser. There is a deep well of kindness beneath his placid exterior, a trait best realised in his hesitant relationship with Avigal, an ethereal Jewish widow of Murray’s acquaintance. Vanessa Paradis brings a restrained quality to this somewhat anomalous character. As she bonds with the gentle gigolo, friendship and human contact fuel their connection, not sex. 

In contrast to the sultry encounters of Fioravante’s work life, and in keeping with Paradis’s heritage, Avigal is accompanied by an upbeat French soundtrack as she makes her way, tentatively, though the world outside her stifling Williamsburg locale. Aided by her new beau’s gentle encouragement, it is she, not the rich uptown vamps, who benefits most from his presence.

It is also arguable that this strand represents the film’s largest hurdle. Catering to the whims of wealthy Manhattan mistresses is engaging in its own risqué way yet there appears little reason for Fioravante, a stranger, to be massaging the bare back of a Hasidic woman in mourning nor for completely removing her sheitel in public. His actions are not born of lust but they do appear to disregard the basic rules of an entire community; they dismiss their importance. 

Liev Schreiber’s watchful neighbourhood patrolman seems like a pest at first glance. As it turns out, however, he is right to express concern about the direction of Avigal’s modesty. Granted, she does not succumb wholly to the temptations of secular life — it isn’t that sort of film — but the episode sits uncomfortably, if not obscenely, with the otherwise cheeky atmosphere at which Turturro is aiming. 

Such fumbles notwithstanding, the two stars crackle when together and one is reminded of Allen’s undoubted quality in pictures where he is allowed, simply, to be Woody Allen. More broadly, Turturro has constructed something terrifically watchable here, its occasional chauvinistic leanings aside. Refined and stylish, Fading Gigolo may hint at simple wish fulfilment but it is never less than glintingly knowing. 

An earlier version of this article was first published here.