Thursday 26 March 2015


For all his austere leanings and weighty Shakespearean back catalogue, Sir Kenneth Branagh has never been afraid to dabble in the blockbuster mainstream. From the comic book bombast of Thor to his muscular Jack Ryan chronicle, Shadow Recruit, the Belfast-born performer seems strongly determined to balance out a directing career otherwise defined by the musings of the Bard.

In many ways, Cinderella represents an apogee of this approach. Dazzling, elegant, grand; Branagh’s Disney adventure is not a retuned, rebooted version of a classic but a straight adaptation of something as familiar to us all as cinema itself. Nothing here will change the world or mould a genre. That matters not. Just go with its cheeky flow, the kaleidoscope of colour and spirited performances, and there are myriad delights to be had. 

If the story itself lacks originality — and this is Cinderella in its purest form — its execution cannot fail to impress. Branagh, that most august of thesps, has crafted a visually stunning feature, overlaying each deliciously rendered frame with gorgeous imagery and sleek aesthetics, his bustling palette wearing the look of some lovingly retouched HD edition of a golden age stalwart. The ultimate effect, at once breathtaking and mildly comforting, should serve to undermine even the most cynical of observers. 

Arguably the film’s least frivolous element, Lily James steps out of the shadow of her simpering Downton Abbey alter ego to fill out the honest and uncomplicated title character, imbuing her with a low-key humanity that never tips into the gormless goody-two-shoes characterisation of the average fairytale heroine. Instead, James brings a realness to her role that reflects the sad strain of an otherwise idyllic childhood, her gentle mother (Hayley Atwell) dying suddenly and leaving Ella in the care of a doting but lonely father (Ben Chaplin).

What happens next is well known. Cate Blanchett arrives as Lady Tremaine, a poised, couture-wielding stepmother so devilish that she keeps a cat, called Lucifer, on a leash. The Australian star, a chameleonic and peerless actress, has great fun playing up to the antagonist stereotype, yet there are layers beneath the surface that might appear mawkish in a weaker grip. She and her gruesome daughters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera) relegate Ella to servitude among the cinders soon after the death of her father, later forbidding her from going to the ball hosted at the royal palace by Kit, the dashing ‘apprentice monarch’ portrayed with jolly earnestness by Richard Madden (fully recovered from his savage demise in Game of Thrones). 

Naturally, Ella does indeed go to the big event thanks to the intervention of Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother, a bundle of cut-glass energy given only the briefest cameo, though it is decisive enough to transform pumpkins into gilded carriages (“I don’t usually work with squashes: too mushy”), mice into stallions and lizards into footmen. While Branagh is clearly treating his adaptation as a serious enterprise, he never scrimps on the fun, steering an endlessly endearing romp through unplaceable, outrageously bucolic European backdrops and a love story most of us know inside out. 

In our hardbitten age, a movie as eternally optimistic as this could feel out of place. Disney, of course, knows exactly what it is doing, sticking close to a formula in which it is steeped. The director simply adds class to an obvious studio attempt to retain the interest of the Frozen crowd and if the wonderfully choreographed dance sequence — a blur of soft swishing skirts and swooping camera work — towards the end does not capture the imagination of the masses, nothing will. 

That Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz have injected a charge of genuine human discourse into their fantasy speaks to a level of thoughtful engagement not necessarily required by the target audience. The wicked stepmother has her demons, the handsome prince his own crushing heartbreak to overcome. These ancillary strands underpin the spectacle and ensure, with a surprising degree of subtlety, that Cinderella’s charm lasts beyond the stroke of midnight. 

A version of this article was first published here.

Saturday 14 March 2015

Run All Night

So, here we are again. As his delicate turn in Schindler’s List fades from the memory, Liam Neeson’s crusade to dominate the cinema listings continues unabated, his reforged action-star career logging another gritty chapter. From the tired Taken franchise to the likes of The Grey, the Ballymena native is currently the go-to guy for middling thrillers in need of a charge of star dust. 

Fortunately, Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra’s Run All Night hits much more than it misses. Relying on his lead actor's hulking physicality and ability to play weathered, brow-beaten Celts like few others, this is a stylish, creatively crafted gangster flick, more than worthy of the public’s attention. In fact it is, arguably, the best output from Neeson for some time. 

He and Collet-Serra have formed a strange double act in recent years, collaborating, with unremarkable results, on 2011’s Unknown, an inoffensive paranoid mystery, and last year’s fun, if silly, Non-Stop. Neeson represents an unorthodox muse, yet the Spaniard has found much to work with in his scowling bullshit-free persona. 

Here he plays ageing mob button man Jimmy ‘the Gravedigger’ Conlon, a listless, drunken reprobate who only remains on the payroll due to a deep-rooted friendship with crime boss Sean Maguire (the excellent Ed Harris). Indeed, within five minutes, every Irish mafia cliché has been handily checked: bars, booze, hangovers and bent cops. Four of the principal players are called Jimmy, Sean, Michael and Danny; there’s a Pat, too, for good measure. Even a framed picture of the old sod sits, comfortingly, on a wall nearby.

Sure, Run All Night lacks the meanness of The Departed, or the breathtaking elegance of Road to Perdition — a film it largely apes, save for the modern setting and a slight deviation in the story — but this soon registers as something nicely off-piste from the creaking template that Neeson has followed in recent years. 

Unlike the dull and basically invincible Bryan Mills of the Taken series, Conlon is a horribly flawed human being, predictably so, maybe, yet real enough to appear interesting. Soaked in his own vices, haunted by the cast of stooges and snitches, enemies and friends that he has done away with for Sean, the Gravedigger shambles between his early scenes like the great husk of a figure once called man. He begs for cash and is forced to don a Santa suit in order to fix his heater. As one might expect, Jimmy’s son, Michael (Joel Kinnaman), is less than enamoured of his dad. 

Their simmering antipathy seems insignificant, however, when Michael, a straight-laced limo driver and dedicated family man, witnesses Danny Maguire (Boyd Holbrook), Sean’s low-life progeny, executing an Albanian gangster. On the cusp of his own murder, he is saved, decisively, by Conlon the elder, an act laced with shattering consequences. 

From this point on, Collet-Serra does a sturdy job of conjuring a tidy chase movie that feels darker than its glitzy sheen and hyperactive tone might otherwise suggest. There is genuine friction between father and son, their race to stay ahead of Maguire — now wracked with the spirit of vengeance — failing to quell the fury felt by Michael about the nature of his scrappy upbringing. Kinnaman, underwhelming in RoboCop, draws on the edgy undertones and magnetic sense of focus that made him so watchable in the American remake of The Killing. Meatier tension also presents itself in exchanges between Neeson and Harrison, where the sight of two grizzled veterans butting heads serves as a sedate antidote to the hectic pace that Collet-Serra employs from time to time.

Perhaps in an attempt to raise his game, he leans on visual kineticism more than is required. A series of tricky techniques are utilised, adding little substance, but they at least signal his intention to produce a somewhat more memorable film than the well-worn narrative should reasonably allow. Early on, he swoops between geographical locations from on high, soaring above the endless outer margins of New York City. Later, for no apparent reason, the camera veers in close to a chainlink fence, and then through it, a Fincheresque move that grabs the attention if nothing else. 

Neeson presses on manfully through all of it, like this generation's Charles Bronson, minus the kitsch. His decidedly old-school air of grimy survivalism propels him towards a measure of redemption. Latterly, Common makes an appearance, crowbarred into the proceedings as an ice-veined killer savant. The move jars but, like its brawny protagonist, Run All Night just about endures.