Sunday, June 14, 2015

Christmas movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2007)

Richard Eyre’s Notes on a Scandal is a superbly potent, gripping entertainment, but never so potent or gripping that you forget you’re watching a blatant melodrama. Cate Blanchett is a new, pretty teacher at a rough-edged London school who crosses madly over the line, having an affair with a 15-year-old boy. She’s caught by a sour-faced, unfulfilled older teacher played by Judi Dench, who imagines herself a potential lover and soulmate. There’s no possibility of a good outcome, and the film is as concentrated as an acid drip feed, crafting extremely memorable characters and confrontations with barely an excess frame or syllable. The casting, of course, is the key. Dench is winning most of the praise, but good as she is, I never really thought she surpassed the basic simplicity of her character’s conception. Blanchett on the other hand is a complete wonder, transcendently embodying a thrilling network of neurosis and impulses and desires. The film always seems capably of shifting onto a more challenging thematic level, but never actually makes the leap – the conventional final scene is particularly disappointing. Still, for those too squeamish to sit through Hostel, this is good edge of the seat stuff.

Children of Men

The real scandal of our times, of course, is in how the news media continues to occupy us with such passing melodramas while the overarching issue, the only one really, comes into focus only in fits and starts, still failing to grab any meaningful policy traction. I’m talking about climate change, the environment, the sustainability of the whole damn thing, and it’s only the thinnest of silver linings that the issue seems somewhat more central to the political debate than it did a year ago. If you spend as much time as I do fantasizing gloomily about where this is all leading, then Children of Men may be (or looked at another way, absolutely may not be) a can’t miss film. This is a stunning imagining of where we might get to in a mere twenty years – a world recognizably our own, with some technological advancement, but catastrophic overall decline otherwise. It exists at a slight tangent to our real nightmares, for the premise here is an infertile world, where the youngest living person is 18, and life is merely a prolonged deathwatch, trying to hang onto some kind of functioning society while collapsing hopelessly upon itself, morally and financially and culturally.

The film, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, is superbly well conceived and directed – the attention to detail is stunning, and Cuaron’s control of his medium is masterly. Its limitation is that once this is all established, the focus of the narrative sometimes feels a little too narrow: Clive Owen plays a now-cynical former idealist who finds himself safeguarding the only pregnant woman in the world, and has to protect her from an insurgent group who want to use her baby for their own ends. In large part it’s a chase thriller, with some stock characters and set-ups, although all searingly well executed. The film’s lasting impact is pretty much all established in its first third, and there’s a bit of a sense of letdown as that becomes clear, but still, what a dynamite piece of work overall,

The Painted Veil

In a very different vein, John Curran’s The Painted Veil is a delicate, moving adaptation of the Somerset Maugham novel, about a scientist husband who cruelly drags his unfaithful wife into a remote cholera zone in 1920’s China. The film is quite a throwback, charting the shifts in their relationship against a highly pictorial backdrop and some old-fashioned personal dangers. Edward Norton and Naomi Watts are both perfectly in tune with the material, and the film gains resonance both from the heightened current sense of China (depicted here at the point where foreign intervention is becoming less welcome) and from how the underlying arc of the wife’s personal journey remains oddly recognizable (if the stuff I read in woman’s magazines is anything to go by). The movie wins sympathy for sheer optimism: as if such a project, released in the same week as the other films in this article, could possibly carve out space for itself.

Curse of the Golden Flower is the new film by Chinese director Zhang Yimou, another immense historical spectacle in the vein of his Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Golden Flower centres on a powerful 10th century emperor (Chow Yun-Fat), his beautiful wife (Gong Li) and three fine sons; the empire initially seems impregnable, until the strains and machinations within the family spawn an unravelling. It struck me that House of Flying Daggers, for all its scope, had only four speaking parts of any consequence, and Golden Flower has only about twice that many; these are unusually concentrated, sparse centres for such apparent epics, but with monumental ripples, embodied in the thousands of soldiers and serfs who populate the film, herded into vast configurations (often just to get killed of course) at the behest of their rulers. This makes for glorious tableaux (even if much of it must be digitally created) but it’s sometimes a little disquieting how Zhang’s recent films mirror the feudalism they portray, swooning over the travails of the rulers with all else being mere cinematic cannon fodder (although I suppose this is no more than the classic approach to tragedy). If you can get past that, the new film is always gripping, with a mild sense of perversity lying beneath its overwhelmingly scenic surface, and some of the set-pieces, particularly the climactic battle, are among Zhang’s most accomplished creations yet.


The first notable release of the new year was Tom Tykwer’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, based on a novel by Patrick Syskind, which chronicles the fanciful tale of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born into extreme poverty in eighteenth century Paris, with no advantages other than an acutely developed sense of smell. Quickly surpassing the limits of the perfumer’s art (Dustin Hoffman plays his mentor), he becomes obsessed with finding better techniques to capture odours, but his interest focuses on the smell of women, and the demands of his project lead him into serial murder. The film is most engrossing early on, when Tykwer uses his facility with montage (he’s best known for Run Lola Run) to evoke the world through Grenouille’s nose, but for much of the time we’re merely watching the unfolding of a clever but somewhat hollow narrative, which becomes increasingly divorced from any compelling period flavour or psychological interest. The movie does have a striking finale, and the way it films some of the women is genuinely sensual and adoring, if you manage to look past the grim role of the female in the whole creation. It’s enjoyable enough overall, but no one who sees it will particularly remember six months from now.

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