State Of Play

Another television to cinema transfer. And again it’s not rubbish. Whatever are we to to do?

State Of Play the television series was a masterpiece of confusion and paranoia, benefitting from the perfectly cast John Simm and Bill Nighy. For most of the series, the viewer had very little idea what was going on, and that was a good thing. You ended up as confused and scared as the central character, and you really went on the journey with him.

State Of Play the film has crossed the Atlantic and added the threat of blogging to traditional journalism and the war against terror to the mix. That’s fine, because this is a story that really needs to be of it’s time. The time constraints of cinema mean it’s hard to build up the same slow sense of utter panic; instead attention is wisely turned to the motivations of the people involved, and their difficulty in surfing the waves of a fast changing world – as it affects the professions of politics and journalism. The latter, of course, is the way most of consume the former, so this really is an important issue.

There’s a lot that’s good here. Director Kevin Macdonald  keeps the story moving well, as we know he’s so good at (see Touching The Void or The Last King Of Scotland). Helen Mirren is ideal as the newspaper’s editor; and Russell Crowe continues to manage that strange trick of being down-at-heel and magnetic at the same time. Even managing to remember most of the story before I went in, I was still basically compelled by the story and the people.

So it’s good stuff, but if there’s a disppointment it’s that the big issues are never really addressed. The context of arms and the war on terror is just scenery; the impact of new media on old is more of a soundtrack than a debate. This director managed to pull it off better in The Last King Of Scotland; maybe that was better written, and it certainly benefitted from having just the one central character. He became the imperfect prism through which the era and the wider issues were examined, as well as the means for telling the story. Here the attention is split between a handful of central characters, none of whom are really given enough depth or time to enable the issues to rise to the surface. The running time of a series makes multiple central figures easier to handle; here the effect is that there’s nothing to really focus on, no-one for the viewer to really empathise with.

In the end, though, this is still a really good thriller and one that deserves attention. It’s of it’s time, it’s compelling and the performances are very fine. All of these carry you through at enough speed not to be really bothered by the deficits.

The Damned United: Universal Truth

Some films are damned by their subject matter. People think it’s too niche, not for them. A few years ago in London’s Leicester Square, I passed a man standing outside one of the many cinemas there, looking at the film times and talking on his mobile to the person who going to join him. They were trying to decide what they would see.

There were a couple of so-so blockbusters around, and showing in a few minutes was the magnificent documentary Touching The Void. Admittedly it’s a hard sell. It’s a mountaineering story of people assumed dead, of mistakes and severe injury. But its also utterly thrilling and inspiring; one of those universal human stories that will grip and connect with anyone who sees it. I’m no climber, I have no real love for it, but I’d recommend that film to anyone.

Back to the man on the phone. Here’s what I remember hearing him say:

‘You want to see Touching The Void? What’s it about……[silence]. Your idea of a good night out is a story about a cold climb going wrong? A documentary? Get out of town! Let’s just go for a beer”

Their loss. There will be similar reactions to the prospect of The Damned United. It’s a story about football, and while of course this has a wider appeal than does climbing, it’s about football in England in the 1970s. In the muddy, grimy north of England, where top level sport was considerably less glamorous than it was now. Although it’s central character (the great manager Brian Clough) was by any standards a charismatic and colourful man, this is film based on a book by the author David Peace. He’s a masterful writer, but in his hands just about every story and character is dark and disturbing.

So yes, this film is a tough sell. If you were a marketing person you would of course sell it by saying that it’s not really about football – you’d want to say that it’s about love or friendship or something like that. The causal viewer, however, with no interest in the subject matter, would roll their eyes and go to find a comedy.

If you do that, you miss out. Because this is a universal story, and it is about friendship and ambition; football’s just the context, and really there’s precious little of it on screen (which is good, as it’s a very difficult sport to film well). It’s about the hopes, fears and doubts that drive us and what happens when we let them get out of control. It’s about friendship as a hard but worthwhile journey. Anyone who’s ever said something they regret to someone they value; anyone who has ever tried to prove themselves bigger than someone who has slighted them, and fallen flat doing so; anyone who has been consumed by a job or a vision or an idea; anyone, in short, who has lived will find something of value, challenge and comfort here.

What’s more, this film has changed the tone of the book – it’s funny, warm, engaging and a little exciting. It should go without saying that Michael Sheen is brilliant in it, but we need to keep saying it until he gets the awards he so richly deserves. There other fine performances too – I particularly liked the affected distance of Colm Meaney as Clough’s nemesis.

Really this a story about what happens when we give into Macbeth’s vaulting ambition, when let ourselves be broken by the desire to dominate and gain revenge. This film isn’t perfect, but then neither are the people it tells us about. Which makes it all the more accessible for the rest of us.

If you’re a person with hopes and fears and ambitions, then this is for you. Don’t miss the wood for the trees.