A Single Man: Beauty and the Black Dog

Mental illness, physical disability, monstrous evil, wild eccentricity. These are the traditional roles to put an actor into Oscar contention. Awards bodies love transformation of mental or physical types. Fair enough, these are eye-catching roles, but it’s a fact that tends to be a little patronising towards comedy: great comedy performances are just as hard – if not harder – than ‘serious’ tragedy; but they’re probably less-lauded.

So to read of Colin Firth taking on the central role in a A Single Man – a role that features suicidal depression bought on by grief- is to assume that he’s tilting at formal recognition. And he should get it. His a terrific performance, occupying just about every second of screen time. Note an ounce of histrionics, a model of economy and as painfully a real portrayal of depression as you’ll ever see on-screen.

A Single Man is directed by  iconic fashion designer Tom Ford and based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1960s novel. It all takes place on one day, the day on which George (Colin Firth) has decided he will kill himself. His partner died in a car crash a few months ago and this being the 1960s, he wasn’t invited to the funeral – gay relationships were the family’s dirty secret. George has just been existing, trying to get through the day and today he has had enough. He will put his things in order, then finish it. The film gives us flashback to the happier days, and takes us through his day encounter by encounter. Noticing things for the last time is as if it’s the first time – suddenly his heart is reawakened to beauty, his heart to a more real honesty.  Where will it lead? That is the film’s journey.

It would be easy to criticise this, especially given the first-time director’s background. It would be easy to say the visual flourishes give a surface sheen of beauty to tragedy, just the empty styling of a hollow heart. That would be easy, but lazy and wrong. The beauty is heart-breaking, and that’s the point. There’s nothing so tragic as being unable to see beauty, and it’s that journey which the direction enables us to take with  George. One of the great  lies of depression is that there is nothing beautiful, or no point in awakening your heart to anything that claims to be beautiful. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone attempt to put this on-screen before; that this film does this, and does it so memorably is near-miraculous.

There are a few similarities with American Beauty here, in theme and style – this, I think, is less mainstream though. That’s neither good nor bad, but it does mean it seems to have a freedom to chase artistic ideas more fully than than American Beauty. The latter had moments of visual or stylistic flourishes and then had to return to more mainstream approaches –  and it did that well.  A Single Man is aiming, I think, at less of a mass-market so allows whims and ideas free-reign. That doesn’t mean it’s hard-going, just different. Like American Beauty, I came out of A Single Man thinking I hadn’t breathed in two hours, that I’d been in a new, more real emotional world. Both films are about the awakening of a heart and mind to see what’s really there in more vivid, real ways.

This, then, is a heart-achingly beautiful and brilliant. See it for one of the best performances of the year. See it to understand or give voice to depression, what it means to lose the will to get out bed and make it through the day. See it to have a heart re-awakened to beauty. See it to experience a new vision of how to show such things on a screen. See it to have your heart, mind and spirit touched.

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Invictus: Hope In A Cliche That’s Real

What I like about Clint Eastwood as a director is his economy. In recent times (and my goodness, is he prolific at the age of 80! 7 films in 6 years, and not a bad one among them) he’s tackled some big, dramatic stories. The emotional context of films like The Changeling and Gran Torino could easily have drifted off into grandstanding; that they don’t, and move us gently but powerfully with their stories of ordinary people experiencing something remarkable is down to the subtlety of Eastwood’s direction. He draws controlled performances, and its so much the better for all of us.

Which is why he’s just the man to bring us a film like Invictus. Taken from the pages of recent South African history, as well as John Carlin’s excellent book Playing The Enemy (being re-released under the same title as the film), it’s the story of Nelson Mandela as South African President, facing the unenviable task of balancing the fears and hope of a nation that appears to teetering on the brink of fracture. How does he reach out to the scared, entrenched Afrikaner heartland? He uses their secular religion, rugby, forging a new hope and spirit around the World Cup his country will host and out of which the home team is expected to crash. That they don’t – and how the country united around a uniform, badge and sport that had previously been a symbol of prejudice and division  – is a story of Mandela’s genius for the prophetic act, forgiveness and that unique sporting cocktail of luck and determination.

It’s not a sports film, but it is a film that uses sport as its language. Rugby is a difficult sport to film, but Eastwood strips the scenes live action to their essential, focussing on the sound and fury, the physical combat. If the story of sport in the film seems like a tired cliché, then that’s the fault of the viewer – in sporting terms, he puts on-screen what happened. That it seems unbelievable is not the fault of the film – it’s the very thing that causes some to say that ever God intervened in a sports tournament for bigger cause, it was this one. Sometimes, sporting fairy tales do happen.

So there may be cliché, but that’s because the cliché is there in the truth itself. While, of course, there’s editing and there’s the danger of hagiography when it comes to a character as revered as Mandela, and that will lead to some cynicism or dismissal of a story such as this. It is, of course, the role Morgan Freeman was born to play, even if his accent does vary wildly between the accurate and the non-existent. Matt Damon is brilliant as Francois Pienaar – his South African accent is very good, and his blend of conviction, athletic excellence and a man sensing his calling is greater than he can fulfill builds to a rounded and subtle portrayal of inspirational leadership.

So this is an excellent film, that will I think not get the recognition it deserves because of its subject and the political issues that circle around it. If you click on these words then you’ll see why this story at this time holds special poignancy for me. Indeed, on my other blog (www.offtosouthafrica.wordpress.com) over the next couple of days I’ll address this film from a more personal perspective, looking at some of the issues around it. For now, though, I commend Invictus to you – it’s a story of hope fulfilled; it’s not the story of a finished work, but it’s one that gives energy and belief from what has been for what could yet be. Enjoy.

Edge Of Darkness

Mel Gibson is in front of the camera for the first time in a while, leaving the behind the scenes work to a director who has form for action thrillers. Martin Campbell is the man most famously responsible for the excellent Bond re-boot Casino Royale (and also the pretty good Goldeneye). Here he directing a movie version of his own 1985 television series of the same name.

It’s not a series I know at all. The story has a similar feel to another recent big-screen version of a television thriller  – State Of Play. Edge of Darkness shares some common ground with that story – a sense of paranoia, corporate suspicion and well-meaning individuals in over their heads. This is a decent thriller – it’s always a good sign when a thriller director doesn’t need to explain everything. It’s entertaining, and of course Gibson can do this sort of thing in his sleep. Which is more or less what he seems to do here – it’s not that his performance is bad, it’s just that it….well, just is. There he is, an ex-husband whose wife is we-know-not-where. There he is not drinking.  There he losing his daughter to a lone gunman. There he is on the trail of a truth that takes us to the dark heart of shadowy corporations and sinister conversations with a deep-voiced Ray Winstone. There he is – doing what we expect Mel Gibson to do in a thriller – nothing more, nothing less.

While the State Of Play had a good dose of the series’ paranoia, pace and the sense of a mystery unravelling that you can never quite pin down, Edge Of Darkness comes up short. Stuff happens, then it doesn’t and it all goes a bit quiet. More stuff happens, then it’s quiet again; then it all speeds up a bit at the end with a climactic crisis that would have been taut beyond belief stretched over 2-3 episodes of gradually building hints, but here happens so quickly that in the end you just shrug and wait for a shoot-out and the credits. It’s not a bad film, it’s just a little dull. Which is precisely what Martin Campbell, Ray Winstone and Mel Gibson are not known. Shame.

Brothers: A Miniature On A Big Canvass

Brothers is an English language remake of a Danish film I haven’t seen,  nevertheless it feels a little familiar. It’s an Afghanistan themed story of an American military family. One son is a Marine, like his father. He goes off to Afghanistan to fight, leaving his wife and children behind. The other brother, recently released from prison has never served and is the family disappointment. When the news comes of the death of the brother serving abroad, family relationships are put under even greater pressure. The widow and her children grow closer and closer to the other brother who finds a new sense of vision and responsibility.

SPOILER ALERT – SKIP TO NEXT PARAGRAPH TO AVOID MEDIUM LEVEL PLOT SPOILER

Having no familiarity with the original film, I don’t want to spoil what comes at all. Suffice to say – especially if you’ve seen the trailer – it all gets very emotionally complex. The serving brother isn’t dead, he was captured. He, and all the family relationships are inevitably changed on his return. What follows that is a striking and surprising process of pressure on relationships being cranked up to and and beyond breaking point

As you would expect from Jim Sheridan, director of In The Name Of The Father, this film is good on many of the little of things – the rituals of military influenced masculinity, the communications through deeds more than conversation, the passion and suspicion hidden behind simple words and actions. This is aided by some well-cast and effective performances – Tobey Maguire is just right as the marine brother, Jake Gyllenhaall brings the right sort of confusion and guilt to the other brother, while Natalie Portman strikes just the required level of feminine uncertainty in a world of masculine assertion; before this film I hadn’t quite realised how much she can communicate with silence and simple words. The supporting cast of family and colleagues all work well too. It’s not a political film – which is unusual for Jim Sheridan. That’s fine, tough. To make a good film about a war, sometimes you need not to focus on the war itself, which Sheridan does effectively.

I had no idea where this film was going in the final third, and it was all the better for that. Yes its melodramatic, but that’s no bad thing. War is a very big thing, and while this has none of the grandstanding of Platoon and the like, the big emotions and events of the melodramatic climaxes do justice to the shadow this war and the events around cast over a generation’s view of the world – even those who will not fight. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a good film, convincingly painting a miniature of family life on a big emotional canvass. To learn something of what war abroad and conflict at home does to a family and a generation, all wrapped in a plot whose final destination is a real surprise, this is as good a place as any to start.

Precious

It’s not unusual for films of critical acclaim to be on the receiving end of a backlash; but for it to be happening within a week of the UK release strikes me as unusual. Precious is the Oprah anointed novel adaptation (the word ‘novel’ is important) of the life of Precious, a young girl from Harlem growing up in the midst of abuse at the hands of her absent dad and her physically present mother. It’s certain for Oscar glory – most likely  for the début performance of Gabourey Sidibe, and is being seen as tale of how to brave in the face adversity and evil. Well some people are starting to call it patronising, offensive and insulting to the poor. Which is it?

Well it’s not a comedy. The girl in question is, when we meet her, pregnant for the second time – by her own father. The abuse she suffers from her mother is at times unwatchable, and when it gets too much we, with Precious escape into a fantasy world of res carpets, expensive dresses and polished soundtracks. But it’s only ever fantasy. She ends up in a special school, and in what’s a cliché of this type of story a teacher takes an interest in her….

Spoilers prevent saying more. I haven’t read the book, but there’s a real danger of this sort of thing becoming the ‘poverty porn’ the anti-brigade are complaining about. But it is fiction, and it’s fiction that feels painfully familiar. I’ve worked with the victims of abuse like that depicted and worse. The flights of fantasy of Precious are so horribly similar to the ones I’ve had relayed to me. When it all breaks down, we all need to escape. Sometimes fantasy is all you have. Some make it out, some crash. Precious’ story is convincing – those complaining need to remember it’s only one story; those in awe of it need to remember the same. It’s fiction that rings horribly true.

Precious is far from perfect, but the performances are brilliant; and I’ll never forget it.Watching it, I wept for people I know, and their stories and abuse ran on the film screen of my mind. It still will when I go to sleep tonight.