The Reader: Shame…

I’ve said elsewhere that it’s hard to treat Holocaust films purely as films. The subject matter looms such a long shadow over everything that it feels impossible to take view them simply as films. That’s the very fact that a film like The Reader plays on – some might say cynically – that we’ll see past the weaknesses and be swept up in the story and its supposed significance.

The film presents itself as a traditional rites-of-passage fable as a teenager is given sexual initiation by an attractive, more experienced woman (played by Kate Winslet) in 1950s Germany. A third of the way in, the film twists into all together darker territory. The woman who seemed so distant and unknowable in the first section is found to have been complicit in Holocaust atrocities, and is now facing justice. We follow the young man’s struggle with his conscience as he seeks to decide what to do with evidence that may swing the trial more favourably for her. Years later, all parties are dealing with guilt, and the secrets they have long held dear. All the pieces are in place for a gripping and moving work.

It isn’t, though. Why? The problem lies in the film’s greatest strength – Kate Winslet’s brave and brilliant performance. She spends most of the first part of the film either naked or in her bus conductor’s uniform – all she has is the roles she plays, as a way of protecting her from exposing the depths of who she is. It’s a great performance, and utterly worthy of acclamation and award. She is, though, deliberately unknowable. Which means we never really know why she goes to bed with the teenager at all – in the end, it just feel like a contrived adolescent male fantasy played through the lens of Holocaust (and other) guilt and shame. The teenager’s in over his head – and only realises just how out of his depth he is later in life. It takes most of his life to come to terms with it – but the journey’s so spread out that it never feels like travelling with him, just teleporting from one staging post to the next.

It should be a great film, but it isn’t. Kate Winslet deserves a better film than this for such a brave and humane performance, but she doesn’t get it. There’s another great Holocaust film somewhere in here, but it’s not the film we’re given.

Shame, a real shame.

Slumdog Millionaire – Fear Not.

Occasionally a film comes along that I’m actually nervous about seeing. It’s because I don’t want to be let down. Director Danny Boyle’s films are like this. I really enjoyed his debut – the blackly comic thriller/morality play on the subject of greed (Shallow Grave – 1995). But it was his second film that, like for so many of my age and stage, changed everything. Seeing Trainspotting for the first time is one of those experiences I can never forget – not sure whether I liked it or hated it, but sure that what I expected from the cinema had been changed for ever. The style backed up by substance, the visual tricks, the music, the script, the subject matter, the performances…all blending into a whole that defied you not to be blown away by the very force of its presence. I was stunned – and going back a second and a third time, I decided that I loved it and that anyone who thought it was peddling some sort of message portraying drug-addiction as somehow a good thing was clearly brainless. It’s now one of my all-time favourites – with each re-viewing I see new depth and new power.

Since that time, I’ve awaited Danny Boyle’s films with trepidation; I want that feeling again, but I don’t want to be disappointed. Some have got close: 28 Days Later – but for me that’s just too bleak to really love; Sunshine – promised a lot, but never quite added up to enough. Some really disappointed – The Beach, A Life Less Ordinary (though not without merit). Some I have inexplicably not been able to see – Millions, though I understand it’s good.

So I approach his latest, Slumdog Millionaire, with real fear. So great has been the advance buzz that, surely, I can’t be anything other than disappointed? At the same time…..it just sounds great. What to do? It’s been a long time since excitement and nerves have combined this way for me.

Frankly, it’s stunning. I’m going to be in danger of gushing here, but it’s magnificent. Funny, touching, thrilling, exciting, romantic, shocking, alarming….it has, literally, everything, without overwhelming you. I find it hard to imagine a person who won’t enjoy this.

It should be cheesy – the story of a boy from the Indian slums who gets on to that country’s version of TV’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire as a way of getting the attention of his now lost childhood sweetheart. It should be woefully implausible as the story takes us through his interrogation regarding the charge of cheating to show how each question he answers through a life experience told in flashback.

It should fail – but it works, perfectly. Why? Simply, it’s a contemporary urban fairy tale, told with such style and respect for an audience which wants to be entertained, that in the end you can’t help but be swept along. Yes, it’s a very tough watch at times – the violence and depravation of slum-life are not skimped on. This is a fairy tale that smells unmistakably of the street. It leads, though, where you want it to lead. In that fact, though, is the film’s real miracle  – whilst centering on a TV show with a huge prize as part of a rags-to-riches tale, it actually subverts the consumerist dream that drives the show and so many stories like this one. Money brings nothing but suffering to those who seek it – to Jamal, the young man at the heart of it all, it’s clear that he’s never in it for the money. All he wants is his soul-mate.

Really, it’s magnificent – right down to the seeds sown in the lives of the local children used to act in the film. The director has provided them all with transport to school until the age of 16, and trust funds to be released to them at age if they stay in school.

In every way, I love this film – both gloriously of it’s time in its setting, style and subject matter and yet challenging and subverting the age’s obsession with money and consumption.

I need not have feared.

Che Parts One & Two

A four hour subtitled political biography may not seem like the wisest way to spend New Year’s Day. The potential for stamina giving way early on is obvious in the aftermath of festive excess. That, though, is how we spent the first evening of 2009.

It’s a joy, then, to report that director Steven Soderbergh’s (apparently) box-office unfriendly attempt to tell the story of one the 20th century’s most iconic political figures is a towering success. It’s very different to The Motorcycle Diaries, the 2004 film that took us into the formative years of the Che’s life; there is little of that film’s relational warmth, little attempt to explain or understand. Instead the film is really dealing with a very contemporary concern – celebrity. Just how do people get famous and influential? Guevera’s real significance has been lost to many behind the t-shirts and posters; these films try to help us why he became such a figure in the first place. Hence, there’s little in the way of his relationships – little of him doing anything other than speaking to, training or fighting alongside, men. Such is the strength of Benicio Del Toro’s screen presence that this doesn’t make him feel unknowable – it becomes very clear that this is a man born to lead. It’s as simple as that. It’s a study in leadership – the ability to connect with, inspire and call people to a goal bigger than themselves, the cost of which may be the very highest possible.

The almost academic, documentary tone serves to make this all the more involving – rather than turning the viewer off, the subtle design and direction involves, grips and stimulates whatever you political viewpoint. Resisting the temptation towards hagiography makes subjects like this all the more accessible.

Of course, there are gaps as subjects are left uncovered or only briefly referred to – the break with Fidel Castro being the most glaring. But all that does is to reinforce the film’s study of leadership – with only the viewer’s own preconceptions and knowledge to add, the film seeks to place the viewer in the mind of one Guevera’s followers. He may be flawed, events may be ultimately beyond his control, and ultimately his will would be broken on the wheel of greater powers – but he’s followed because he’s willing to lead. Which can only make one sad as we survey the leaders around us.

Australia – relax & enjoy

It’s a truth often overlooked, but no less true for all that, to say that it takes just as much skill to make good out-and-out entertainment as it does a small, independent masterpiece overlooked by audiences and awards-givers.

Baz Luhrmann has thus far made a career out of proving those who they think know better wrong. He did with his first film – Strictly Ballroom – which many who thought themselves wise told the director would never succeed. The film was too quirky & ballroom dancing would never make for a hit. A glance at prime-time Saturday night television schedules shows just how wrong they were. 1996’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet showed that he knew as well as anyone how to make the greatest English writer relevant to the global-village/MTV generation. He completed the set with the almost absurdly ambitious Moulin Rouge single-handedly rebooted the musical as a viable cinematic form; two years later Chicago won a hatful of Oscars.

So we come to Australia. It’s the film that adjectives like sweeping, epic and grand were invented for. It’s a western/love-story in the grand style of Gone With The Wind, with colourful and photography, simultaneously celebrating and making gentle fun of typical Australian stereotypes. It has A-list talent in Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman; it tries hard to tick the right ethical boxes with a story-line that touches on the ‘Stolen Generation’.

There’s a lot that could be criticised or analysed – and it may be right to do so. But really, this is a film that just wants to have fun. And it does so admirably; it’s to be enjoyed and celebrated, the work of a man who, with the full backing of the Australian tourist industry, has made a film that just wants to entertain. It’s as skillful and accomplished as many more ‘serious’ works, and could only be made by someone supremely confident of his own ability, but who doesn’t feel a need to prove it to anyone.

Amen to that.