Friday 24 October 2014


When it takes a director 18 months to finish a film, whispers of reshoots and tortured editing will inevitably begin to surface. In the case of Serena, Danish director Susanne Bier's Depression-era drama which wrapped in 2012, those fears proved to be unfounded. Bier, it seems, was simply being precise. 

An adaptation of Ron Rash’s 2008 novel, Serena feels less mainstream than the stellar names might otherwise indicate, its high-passioned frontier tumult at once coldly savage and, ultimately, wildly hot tempered. In her English language debut, Bier's construction is a tense, beautifully realised meditation on power and ambition. 

Bradley Cooper plays George Pemberton, a charismatic Bostonian and the head of a budding timber empire. From his lumber yard in North Carolina, he works the land alongside his men, sleeps with his cook and espouses solid free-market beliefs that clash with the environmentalist proselytising of Toby Jones’s bumptious sheriff. 

As ever, Cooper is a terrific actor to behold, his matinee idol features almost adding to the shiftiness that he brings to each role. His budding magnate is not an especially likeable man but, in this capable A-list grip, Pemberton is layered rather than clichéd, neither especially villainous nor particularly noble. He has a conscience, no doubt, but his time in the wild breeds a sharp, and pivotal, sense of survival.

Occurring in the immediate wake of the 1929 Wall Street Crash, the subsequent crisis is all but invisible in a landscape already scarred by poverty. Pemberton heads off to extend his bank loan in the privileged north: poor credit, badly affected by the downturn, forces him to offer up cherished virgin land in Brazil as collateral. This Yankee sojourn improves when he encounters the exquisite Serena Shaw (Jennifer Lawrence), the flinty offspring of hard-edged Colorado logging barons whose demons are all to obvious, even as the bewitched Pemberton makes her his wife.

The subsequent domesticated middle section of Bier’s story is occasionally fascinating. Shaw, steely and glamorous in equal measures, strides into position, an equal player in Pemberton’s enterprise capable of issuing instructions on chopping technique and taming a snake-killing eagle (while her husband continues to obsess over the elusive mountain lion he wishes to kill). Lawrence is every inch the omnipotent title character, bent on consolidating her own position in surroundings with which she is more than familiar. ‘I didn’t come to Carolina to do needlepoint, Mr Buchanan,’ she says, ominously, to her husband’s jealous business partner.

There is much to gorge on in this meaty middle: love, lust, betrayal, death. Cooper and Lawrence — dazzling in Silver Linings Playbook, confident in American Hustle — loom over the narrative like mighty twin oaks. Bier finds much to work with in their mutually destructive chemistry, where besotted affection slowly gives way to suspicion.

In the foreground, unfortunately, that central alliance wields a frame-consuming dominance, leaving little room for much else, plot or cast. Conleth Hill’s rumpled Dixie doctor (likely fleeing the reach of a professional conduct investigation based on his clinical abilities) and Sean Harris, as a whispery, unusually upstanding, foreman, are forced to feed on scraps. Jones, too, must make do, veering from preachy irritant to keen investigator under the yoke of an lukewarm subplot concerning the Pembertons’ involvement in corruption and murder.

Truthfully, such difficulties are to be expected when this is so clearly Lawrence’s show. A fixture in two big budget franchises (X-Men and The Hunger Games), the actress’s reputation now matches her obvious talent. However, in her seminal breakthrough, Winter’s Bone, she was marooned in a hopeless Ozarkian wilderness and, fittingly, she excels once more in this distant back country, convincing as the hardy survivalist who happens to look like Jennifer Lawrence on a really good day. 

Beyond that, her descent into jealousy-induced psychosis, the certainty of a fate once avoided, is sadly inevitable, though effectively accomplished. As she nurses her broken womb in a blanched hospital ward, there are few words to describe the silent torment fired directly into the camera. Later on, she watches Cooper charge off in the wake of an argument, shivering in her night clothes on a dirty street. The frantic wave of farewell that she directs at his back — hopeful, childlike — sits on the crazed end of a terribly fevered spectrum. 

That standard fails to sustain and it is a pity then that the dark kinship developed with taciturn woodsman Galloway (an incredibly sinister Rhys Ifans) should support the picture’s weakest element. Dominating the final third, and choppy in its conception, her sudden fixation on the fate of Pemberton’s illegitimate son feels forced, horribly out of step with the otherwise smouldering atmosphere.

At her grim conclusion, Bier’s true success, perhaps, is in conjuring an ambience as palpable as the leads’ steamy dynamic. The gritty action is mostly hemmed in by the isolation of its rural valley base, with only torrid passions for company, and in the Czech Republic’s stunning landscapes (doubling for North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains) the director appears intoxicated. 

This mist-shrouded hinterland holds the subtle whiff of felled trees and wet mud, while cinematographer Morten Søborg soaks up the colours of Camp Pemberton: deep, damp greens and drab browns. Johan Söderqvist’s score, too, touches a nerve, its desolate Southern soundscapes dripping with menace, ripe with heartache. It peppers Bier’s sometimes flawed vision, evoking few hopes that everything will be alright in the end. 

An unedited version of this article was first published here

Thursday 23 October 2014


There have been more films than one might expect about the Troubles. Most have been terrible. The Devil’s Own saw Brad Pitt hiding his tortured Northern Ireland brogue behind a pout and a whisper; Five Minutes of Heaven (a film not without local flavour given the presence in its cast of Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt) offered a fairly preposterous portrayal of the foulness tearing through the country during the 1970s. Even those Belfast scenes in the ostensibly superb Patriot Games — slums, ‘IRA’ graffiti and football-playing urchins — were cringe-inducing in their simplicity. 

Only Steve McQueen’s visceral Hunger and Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday have, arguably, captured the complicated essence of a landscape multiple filmmakers fail to traverse with success. 

For director Yann Demange, the decision to tackle Belfast’s former self in ’71 might have proved a disastrous one. Yet, like McQueen before him, he brings an original touch to a subject often plagued by cliché and free of nuance. Demange was born in Paris and raised in London. He made his bones in the latter, directing gritty television drama Top Boy and thus he is no stranger to the milieu at the core of this brilliant, coiled, pulsating thriller. Nevertheless, in bottling the spirit of something so concentrated, so specific, Demange — making his feature debut — has marked himself out, remarkably, as a cinematic talent of near boundless horizons. 

As the title suggests the year is 1971. Somewhere in England, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) and his fellow squaddies are put through their exercises in anticipation of a deployment to Germany: eager and clear-eyed, ready for army life, well-suited to their coldly regimented existence. Awoken in the middle of the night they are informed, however, that the plans have changed. The security situation in Belfast is deteriorating, that is where they are headed now. ‘Do any of you know where Belfast is?’ barks the gruff sergeant. ‘Northern Ireland? The United Kingdom? Here?’ 

In truth, none of them can begin to imagine the hornet’s nest into which they are casually dropped. Almost immediately, Demange conveys the blind confusion which defined countless soldiers’ searing baptisms in the ways of Northern Ireland’s turmoil. That crucial tipping point occurs early on as Hook and his squad are set upon during a riot. In an instant he becomes isolated, cut off from the unit, scrambling to outwit the band of murderous paramilitaries (including Belfast’s own Martin McCann) intent on claiming his scalp. 

From that point on, Demange is keen to push hard on the throttle. This is a film hurtling toward its own breathless conclusion, easing the pace at times, though rarely releasing any building pressure and that sense of urgent paranoia nipping at Hook’s heels.

Such an approach proves successful. Sticky politics are avoided; there is no agenda to push, nor time to bother with tiresome sectarian issues. It is a merciful sleight of hand for which screenwriter Gregory Burke — the playwright behind warts-and-all military drama Black Watch — must receive substantial credit. 

Survival is the priority here, not education and if Demange occasionally opts for a dollop of 'Northern Ireland 101', the authenticity stays intact thanks to Hook, the chronicler of this harrowing ground-level warfare. A resourceful warrior he may be but Hook is not a man steeped in the complexities of modern Irish history. While a knowledgeable audience might not require spoon-fed information, he certainly does. 

In the lead role, a towering O’Connell oozes believability, imbuing his character with a desperate will to endure and no little humanity — one early scene sees him returning to his hardscrabble Derby neighbourhood to bond with the kid brother condemned to state care. Later, as the fires rage, O’Connell understandably wears the expression of a stunned animal, unsure in these surroundings, ignorant of why his notional safety depends on him stumbling into the right street.

One of the finest young British actors working today, he has tried his hand at more than one genre (300: Rise of an Empire, Angelina Jolie’s upcoming directorial epic Unbroken), excelling when asked to personify wiry symbols of working-class youth disaffection in grimier domestic fare, from Eden Lake to Starred Up.

Quieter moments involving Richard Dormer’s good Samaritan are elegantly done — he tentatively bonds with Dormer’s teenage daughter over contemporary pop music and the Derby-Nottingham divide — yet remain laced with a sense of foreboding that Hook, for all his innocence, is right to discern. 

This atmosphere is ably captured by cinematographer Tat Radcliffe’s visual palette. His surprisingly rich, earthy tones and frigid nightscapes are painted onto the canvas provided by Blackburn, Liverpool and Sheffield, each standing in for a scarred version of Belfast that peace money has now scrubbed away. 

Indeed, the steel city’s iconic Park Hill estate, a brutalist urban edifice currently undergoing its own regeneration, does a nice turn passing for the long disappeared Divis flats, that iconic hinterland of normality and chaos. David Holmes’s coolly disengaged score, too, colours the action, providing the soundtrack to a depiction of his home town that will seem alien to many.

Considering the speed at which the action moves, bumps are inevitable. The always sinister, multi-accented Sean Harris leads a cartoonishly villainous covert military unit which colludes with loyalists, recruits republicans and plots mayhem as a matter of daily routine. The strand is not entirely out of place in this context, of course, but it is underwritten, an unnecessary distraction in an otherwise gripping period tale. 

This is, however, an arc with ominous implications for the spartan finale. The late David Ervine regularly lamented that ‘dirty stinking war’, a conflict fuelled as much by corruption and injustice as by politico-religious fervour. It is not a view with which Gary Hook is likely to disagree. 

A version of this article was first published here

Wednesday 8 October 2014

Dracula Untold

The recent cinematic adventures of Dracula have been a rather mixed bag. Decades have passed since the big-collared glory days, when both Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, under the Universal and Hammer banners respectively, inhabited his arch villainy to an iconic degree. 

More recently, in 1992, Francis Ford Coppola churned out an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula, a bloated erotica, as unashamedly indulgent as it was good fun. Keanu Reeves was cast as a blank-faced Jonathan Harker, unfortunately, and Coppola’s once masterful touch abandoned him in when faced with the camply rendered material. Similarly, Universal’s 2004 monster-revival effort Van Helsing included a preposterous Richard Roxborough as the cartoonish count in a film otherwise hobbled by the presence of Stephen Sommers in the director’s chair and the (not unconnected) fact that it was utterly dreadful.  

Not to be put off, however, Universal has persisted. With a new generation of moviegoers unversed in the vintage franchise that few were clamouring to see recharged, Dracula Untold is the latest iteration of an age-old vampire yarn. It is a challenge that the studio meets with decidedly ambiguous results. 

Dublin native Gary Shore helms this $100 million behemoth, overseeing an often visually dazzling piece of blockbuster popcorn cinema that falters, in spite of an enthusiastic cast’s nobly straight-faced efforts, due to risible dialogue, predictable plotting and a conclusion which will, of course, offer few surprises. 

Humanising origin tales remain a well-trodden path at present, Dracula’s roots existing in a strand of Romanian folklore centred on Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia. It is from this source that Shore draws his inspiration, blending high fantasy with historical record. A late nod to Stoker’s take on the legend acknowledges its broader impact but for Shore the genesis of this mythology holds the most allure.

In the lead role, a smouldering Luke Evans is Prince Vlad, the beneficent ruler of his Transylvanian heartland, whose love for a wilful spouse, Mirena (Sarah Gadon: exquisite, doomed) and spritely son, Ingeras (Game of Thrones alumnus Art Parkinson, working in a familiar genre) is bound for a tragic climax from the moment they are witnessed cavorting around their grand homestead in familial bliss. 

Trying to purge from his mind a past spent impaling innocents for the Ottoman army, Vlad is a devout Christian, a peaceful man whose plans to avoid conflict with the imperial overlords are inevitably undermined by a demand from Dominic Cooper’s preening sultan — gilding his scumbag bona fides with eyeliner and a bad eastern accent — for 1000 child soldiers and a royal hostage in the form of Ingeras. 

Predictably enough, Vlad, having little regard for the scheme, resists these Turkish advances. He instantly seeks salvation from arts more dark than martial and, from this point on, a finely balanced opening gives way to bombastic CGI and a contrived, poorly paced, surprisingly bloodless, 12A depiction of one man’s descent into the blackness.

Many of Dracula Untold’s weaknesses stem from a truncated running time which squeezes major events into a series of narrative pit stops. From the moment that Vlad resolves to sell his soul to a cave-dwelling demon (Charles Dance) he knows next to nothing about — save for the conveniently accurate exposition provided by Paul Kaye’s watchful monk — one cannot shake the notion that Shore is scrambling to cram a crowded tableau into a very tight space. 

As he surrenders himself to three days of demonic prowess, a curse with which he will be laboured for eternity if he drinks human blood, Vlad’s embrace of these new powers, at once interesting and chilling, is jettisoned to make way for a series of shiny, hollow battle scenes. 

Acutely aware of studio pressure to feed the masses with Universal’s expensive fare, Shore occasionally steps outside bland multiplex drudgery — the relationship between Gadon, so affecting in this year’s Belle, and the serviceable Evans is never less than touching — but such moves are clearly ancillary to the spectacle. 

Inconvenient tensions are overcome as swiftly as they arise. In one scene, Vlad chides the small band of superstitious compatriots he has chosen to protect (all of whom seem to reside in his castle) for attempting to burn him alive. He dismisses their concerns about his alarming new ability to transform into a cloud of bats; they forgive him his possession.

If there is a genuinely redeeming quality, it rests in the aesthetic. Tellingly, Shore finds more success within the frame than he does beneath it and, given his background in commercials, it should come as no surprise that he brings significant style to his debut featured. Northern Ireland granted Universal a bespoke production base and the region’s rugged beauty forms an especially stunning backdrop. This is a Transylvania of verdant glens and towering mountains, its vastness accentuated and lingered upon by Shore’s admiring lens. 

Indeed, his considerable technical skills intermittently light up the mostly dull drama: a stunning opening 3D montage, all swooping cameras and brooding shadows, tells of Vlad’s early years in service to the Ottomans; later, as Evans lays waste to a field of foes, his omnipotence plays out in the reflection of a dying soldier’s falling sword. Taken as individual components, these achievements impress on a deeper level than one might expect from a film of largely rote ambitions. 

Whatever their superficial effect, however, such flourishes are, in truth, little more than a mere shimmer, garnishes to a story requiring a truly gothic treatment.

An edited version of this article was first published here