Monday, July 27, 2015

A new discovery

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2002)

John Cassavetes made intensely personal films with a recognizable style, and he put himself on the line for his art. He turned down a lot of commercial work, allegedly including the Barbra Streisand A Star is Born. But at the end of his career, he needed money, and accepted an offer from his friend Peter Falk to take over the troubled production Big Trouble (a farce co-starring Alan Arkin, about an insurance salesman who gets caught up in a wacky fraud scheme). According to Ray Carney’s book Cassavetes on Cassavetes, he worked hard on it for a year, but the film was edited in ways he didn’t agree with (he said the only scene that reflected his wishes was a scene in which Arkin gags on Falk’s sardine-flavoured liquer). After that, Cassavetes became too ill to work any more, so Big Trouble weirdly stands as his last work.

Cassavetes antennae

I finally got to see it the other day. Priding myself on my Cassavetes antennae (I’ve seen Love Streams maybe five times and most of his others at least twice), I was convinced I’d sniff out some subtleties, some hidden personal touches. But the movie really is as bland as everyone says. In a few scenes, bits of behaviour are allowed to run unusually long, or there’s a particular deadpan feel to the camera work, or there’s a peculiar moroseness. I think I felt Cassavetes behind the camera at those moments, shrugging and thinking what-the-hell and letting it go a certain way. But for most of the time, he perfectly sublimated his instincts, which is presumably what he was hired to do.

Still, just the knowledge of who was behind the camera made Big Trouble far more engrossing than an off-the-shelf comedy with a lesser pedigree. It pays to know your directors. Now, a recent film presented me with a very different problem. Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira is 93 years old. The Internet Movie Database lists his first film as being made in 1931. There are some big gaps in his career – nothing between 1942 and 1956. But he’s sure making up for it now – he’s made a film every year since 1990, and has another at this year’s Cannes festival.

Let me emphasize what I just said – de Oliveira is 93 years old and he’s making a movie a year. We may be in an aging society, but it’s still generally regarded as “wonderful for his age” if a 93-year-old can even string a coherent sentence together. So de Oliveira is a miracle indeed. But are the films any good? It’s hard to know – because it’s hard to get to see them. To my knowledge, they’re never shown here except at the film festival – and it’s never worked out for me to see any of them there. So the recent commercial release of his I’m Going Home marks my introduction to him.

I’m Going Home

It’s fair to assume a 93-year-old director would have established his creative personality by now. I’m Going Home feels like a summing-up; it feels self-referential. From such an aged filmmaker, it’s hard not to read the title as a metaphor for the end of a broader journey. The film supports that interpretation. Michel Piccoli stars as an esteemed actor whose wife, daughter and son-in-law are killed in a car accident. We don’t witness his grief directly – the film takes place mainly three months after the tragedy, as he goes about his life. He discusses new projects, reads the paper in his local cafĂ©, buys new shoes, plays with his grandson, eventually accepts a new film (the director of which is played by John Malkovich). This is all presented in a very simple, elegant manner – often viewed through a window or from a distance. Liam Lacey in The Globe and Mail summed it up this way: “The film’s point is, as W H Auden wrote of Breughel’s portrait of Icarus tumbling from the sky while farmers kept ploughing their fields, that the superficial business of life rolls on, while personal catastrophes happen mostly at the periphery.”

I think that is indeed the film’s point, more or less. But I was taken by Lacey’s rather strenuous importing of the Auden/Breughel reference to make his point. Lacey doesn’t indicate in the article whether he’s seen any of de Oliveira’s other work, so it’s tempting to think he hasn’t, and rather like me, he’s rather lost for a frame of reference. As such, one is drawn to read the film through whatever off-the-shelf artistic framework is handy. At various times the film’s style might remind the viewer of Angelopoulos or Chantal Akerman or Jacques Rivette or Antonioni. But maybe all I mean is that it has a manner we recognize as distinctively European and associated with a taste for restraint and ambiguity and elegant characterization (the casting of Piccoli and Catherine Deneuve and Malkovich is archetypally arthouse too). The film feels inherently ethical – Piccoli uses that word in turning down a lame-sounding action series – and the measured, poised style avoids any possible sensationalism or cheap gratification.


Among the many things I wish I knew about de Oliveira is how deep his sense of humour goes. Near the end of I’m Going Home, Piccoli accepts a part in an adaptation of Joyce’s Ulysses. He plays a character much younger than himself, and fails completely to make his French accent sound even remotely Irish – I found the whole thing extremely funny. The fact that Malkovich seems generally pleased with the performance, correcting words or mispronunciations here and there while letting much else go by, makes it even funnier. More broadly, de Oliveira appears to use this cultural absurdity to drive home the incoherence or absence at the centre of Piccoli’s life. This is reinforced by the way de Oliveira presents the film-making process – the action takes place off screen while the camera stares unblinkingly at Malkovich, watching, correcting, occasionally reacting.

The Carlton is to be praised (actually, barely a week goes by when the Carlton’s not worth praising for something or other) for bringing us this film. Still, seen in isolation from de Oliveira’s other work, it can hardly avoid seeming like something of a curio. At various points, we may feel that our ability to engage with it gathers strength and then recedes, but we can have little confidence in these quivering assessments. Familiarity counts for so much in cinema – so much so that a broken-backed formulaic work like Big Trouble may carry as much resonance and impact as an objectively much finer work.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Affluence threatened

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2002)

I’ve often planned to count up the number of positive reviews I’ve written over the years (six years now, believe it or not) versus the number of negative ones. It’s not a high priority, which is why it never gets done. It’d probably only be depressing anyway – too many pans and caveats. I truly wish I only wrote good reviews, if only because presumably it would mean I was only seeing good movies. In recent years, I’ve become better at avoiding the true stinkers, but I don’t get bowled over as often as I wish. Maybe it’s just me – maybe I need a diet, more vitamins or something.

Fight Club

The bad reviews I wish I hadn’t written because it would mean I hadn’t wasted time seeing the movie – that’s one thing. But if any of this kept me up at night (and it doesn’t, but if it did) it would be the thought of the bad reviews I wish I hadn’t written because I now think I got it wrong. A few months ago I changed my mind big time on Pulp Fiction, and I felt honor-bound to write about that (it consumed half my article on The Shipping News – my mind wanders sometimes). At the same time, I started thinking again about my review of Fight Club – a movie I was quite nasty about. It felt somehow logical that a liking for Pulp Fiction would be largely correlated with a liking for Fight Club, meaning I might have another major recanting job to do.

So I got round to rewatching it a couple of months ago, and was relieved that I didn’t really feel obliged to do any recanting at all. At best, I’d soften my review a bit. I think my original vitriol was as much directed at the excesses of local critics than at the film itself. Fight Club is skillful, but its constant criticism of our dubious values and deficient self-actualization quickly becomes repetitive and murky, and (unlike Pulp Fiction) the film gradually becomes almost entirely consumed by plot mechanics. I didn’t dislike the final twist as much the second time though – I was better able to step back and take it metaphorically (although the ending still doesn’t seem to me to mesh very well with the more immediate social satire at the start of the film). And the visual style and imagination are admirable – it’s quite a compendium of ideas and images and moods. But it still doesn’t do a lot for me.

Panic Room

Fight Club director David Fincher has now followed it with Panic Room, a thriller with Jodie Foster. Panic Room is nowhere near as ambitious as Fight Club was. It’s set almost entirely inside a single house – a huge New York brownstone where newly divorced Jodie Foster moves with her teenage daughter. The house contains a “panic room” – a virtually impenetrable stronghold in which the owners can hide in the event of a home invasion. On the first night in residence, Foster wakes up to find strangers in the house, and she and the kid bolt into the panic room. The problem is, the previous inhabitant left several million dollars hidden in there – which means the thieves are determined to get in.

This entails numerous twists and turns: the men try various ways of luring the women out; Foster and the girl try to contact the outside world; the daughter gets sick and Foster has to leave the room to retrieve her medicine. Foster’s ex-husband calls by and promptly gets beaten by the invaders. It’s all efficiently executed. In particular, Fincher magnificently exploits the contours of the house, constructing numerous seemingly unbroken camera movements that travel effortlessly through the interior space (although by now these look like a Fincher “staple” – Fight Club had several such effects).

There’s a pattern emerging in Fincher’s work. Se7en was a highly creative thriller that claimed to see only wretchedness in the world. He followed it with The Game, an almost equally creative film that wallowed happily in its rich protagonist’s milieu. Then came Fight Club, seemingly a repudiation of the complacency of the film that preceded it. Now comes Panic Room, and Fincher’s comfortable again with the trappings of great wealth. His social conscience seems like a suit of clothes, slipped on and off at will, and already seeming a little threadbare even when it’s on. Although I will say that I saw Se7en lately again as well, and that film still seems almost as darkly insinuating and chilling as it did the first time.

By myself

Admittedly, some writers do see more to Panic Room than I do. Anthony Lane wrote in The New Yorker that the film is “not so much scary as endlessly worrying; the movie was designed, propitiously, to suck in all the insecurities that you can imagine, and a few that you can’t.” Which makes it sound like an extension of the Fight Club agenda. But the premise depends so completely on wealth and privilege that most viewers’ identification with it (and the extent of its disturbing effect on them) will be strictly superficial.

I doubt I’m giving much away by saying that the protagonists of Panic Room survive the ordeal (with such films it’s not a matter of whether, but merely of how). And in the end Foster and the kid lounge on a bench in Central Park, reading the ads for other attractive Manhattan properties (albeit smaller ones). I searched hard for some irony there, but it sure looks like a straightforward image of affluence and order restored, subject to only minor modification.

Finally, thinking again about those virtuoso Fincher camera movements, digital technology has really killed much of the magic of the mobile camera. Effects like Hitchcock’s dizzying plunge into the clocktower in Vertigo, or Antonioni’s glide through the window at the end of The Passenger – they’re child’s play now. But those shots had a physical immediacy (if only because you could feel the work that went into them) that no amount of computer-generated flourish can equal.

Another favourite example of mine is from The Band Wagon – the unbroken tracking shot of Fred Astaire as he glides along the railway platform singing “By Myself.” There’s a beautifully intuitive marriage of style and content there – it’s as appropriately eloquent as you could possibly wish for. And within a film of deep and consistent richness. It’d be great to review new movies as passionately as you’d review Vertigo and The Passenger and The Band Wagon, but that’s just not being earned.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Five films

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2002)

Did you realize that most weeks, six or seven movies open in Toronto? Even if only one or two of those were worth seeing, it’d be pretty hard work. Most weeks I go at least twice, and I always feel I’m missing out on something. But lately I crammed in a few more than usual (long weekends are a blessing). So here’s a departure from the norm: capsule reviews of no less than five recent movies.

Death to Smoochy
A satire of children’s television, with Robin Williams as an embittered, fired kiddie TV host vowing to get even with the good-natured guy in a rhino costume (played by Edward Norton) who now fills his time slot. The movie doesn’t go much further than the concept – there’s no particular satiric point to it, and it doesn’t come close to the kind of territory that would make it memorable on its own terms. The big set pieces – like Norton’s inadvertent appearance before a Nazi rally – are all either reminiscent of other, better films, or else indifferently executed, or often both. And this is one of those movies where the bad guys suddenly turn nice, men and women who hated each other fall in love, and the world turns out almost as pleasant as a Barney song. The film should have been at least twice as convinced of its own nastiness. Still, it’s appealingly put together in a brash, hermetic kind of way, and if the obscenities aren’t half as creative as in a Kevin Smith movie, the odd one still gets an easy laugh.

Festival in Cannes
Henry Jaglom has made a string of small-budget, intimate, intriguing but somewhat rambling movies (detractors consider them whiny and trivial). He also deserves some appreciation from movie-lovers for his steady championing of Orson Welles – although you’d be hard-pressed to see much direct Wellesian influence in his own work. Jaglom fans (and I’m one) should be delighted with this new film, and others will find it a pleasant time-killer. A tale of deal-making (both financial and of the heart) during the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, the movie is a bit more focused than usual for the director – the long philosophical exchanges and direct-to-camera talking heads are sidelined here. But the movie feels like his – sometimes strident actors like Ron Silver are coaxed into the director’s distinctive style of leisurely, amiable naturalism. The plot seems to run out of steam toward the end, but maybe that’s Jaglom’s comment on the sustainability of such a crazy industry. With more than 12 films in the last 20 years though, he’s obviously not being treated too badly by the financial fates, and indeed has the taste not to bite the hands that feed him.

The title stands for the Long Island Expressway, a grim stretch of highway saved from anonymity only by its high celebrity death count. In the faceless surrounding neighborhoods, a teenage boy negotiates ambiguous relationships with his wealthy but possibly corrupt father, his sexually ambivalent friend and the jovial local pedophile (an intriguing characterization by Brian Cox). This is mildly daring material, declining to pass obvious judgment on its numerous flawed characters, suggesting that this cold face of American life may demand a severe reassessment of conventional morality. Ultimately though, it wraps up rather too neatly (how many films have this fault I wonder?) – and it may not be too much more at heart than an oblique manifesto for better-integrated families and communities (the end of the film could be read as a mere sweeping away of deviancy). The film is sternly crafted and always engrossing, although it’s never as intellectually bracing as it intends, and the frequent symbolic return to the highway seems more limiting than liberating.

Suspicious River
Canadian director Lynne Stopkewich’s follow-up to Kissed screened at the Toronto Film Festival in 2000 and opened in the UK long ago – it finally creeps out onto a single screen at the Carlton. How could we treat our own filmmakers so badly? It’s a good movie and deserves to be seen. The story of a small-town motel receptionist who prostitutes herself to the guests initially seems rather thin and monotonous (and it takes a while to appreciate the subtlety of Molly Parker’s performance), but gradually expands into more complex, gripping territory. A subplot about a little girl who observes her parents’ unhappy marriage holds the surprising key to the film. Its last twenty minutes almost have the feel of Mulholland Drive about them – life and death, fantasy and reality intertwine disquietingly, and it’s not clear exactly where the film ends up. That’s not a complaint though – the film feels intuitively right, coaxed from a troubled but defiant psyche that alternates between idealism and pessimism about female sexuality. It occasionally carries an almost zombie-like quality, perfectly capturing the deadening contours of the small town. Kissed received more recognition and praise, but I found Suspicious River more deeply felt and compelling overall. Admittedly I’m overpraising it a bit here, but that’s just my token attempt to remedy the way the film’s been treated.

Last Orders
The best of the films covered here is Fred Schepisi’s adaptation of a Graham Swift novel, about three aging drinking buddies (Tom Courtenay, Bob Hoskins, David Hemmings) mourning the death of a fourth (Michael Caine). With the dead man’s son, they spend the day driving his ashes to the seaside, to be scattered off the end of the pier. Around this journey, the film blends in an astonishing array of flashbacks to various parts of their lives. It could hardly look and feel more authentically drab and desolate – there’s very little misplaced romanticism or nostalgia here – and yet it gradually takes on the expansive, limitless feel of a Bertolucci film. The film skillfully finds moments of hope, of extreme possibilities squandered (Caine remarks that only Courtenay seems satisfied with his lot in life – he’s an undertaker), of faith and longing. It allows us both to feel the impact of those moments and to appreciate that they don’t amount to much from sixty or seventy years on earth. A similar duality applies to the film’s conclusion – Caine’s passing allows a long-delayed renewal for two of the other characters, but we’re not drawn to overestimate what that might amount to at this late stage. The actors are all great to watch, and I think this film will grow in one’s memory.

And I saw Panic Room too! But more on that next time.


Sunday, July 12, 2015

The human spirit

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2002)

I was writing the other week about how director Jacques Rivette has challenged normal notions of how long a movie should be. Soon after that I went to the Cinematheque Ontario on a Sunday afternoon for a five-and-a-half hour screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s France Tour Detour Deux Enfants (actually a series of twelve half-hour TV programs, shown here in one block). I’m often surprised how few people seem aware of the Cinematheque – it really is one of Toronto’s artistic jewels. I go there maybe thirty or forty times a year, but it should be way more often (life involves tough choices). I get a bit irritated by fair-weather film festival attendees who make a big deal for that one week in September of avoiding the commercial and seeking out rare films, while ignoring the Cinematheque for the rest of the year.
Five and a half hours!

I envy anyone who can watch a five and a half hour movie with the same concentration I can apply for ninety minutes. I nodded off at least three times; I was almost as preoccupied with spacing out my candy as with the film itself. And of course, that big a chunk of time couldn’t help but screw up the other things you’d normally do with your day. Still, it was a sublime experience. The film itself is endlessly fascinating and provocative. Of course that’s partly a function of the possibilities allowed by so much time, but the length itself, quite separate from the content, forms an intertwined yet somehow distinct experience. Maybe it’s partly self-aggrandizement – you’re impressed at your own resolve and fortitude. But it’s also purer than that.

I’m usually skeptical about the common claim that a particular feel-good hit represents the “triumph of the human spirit.” Part of my skepticism is that for such movies (A Beautiful Mind is one of the most recent) the feel-good dosage goes down all too easily – the film itself involves little suffering or striving. The ultimate “triumph” of the human spirit usually seems muted to me because we were spared the pain or full complexity of the earlier obstacles. I doubt anyone’s ever reviewed a Godard movie in such terms, yet the “lighter” moments of France Tour Detour seem more liberating and more meaningful than any number of standard happy endings, because of the encyclopedic context from which they emerge.

Of course, I’m not saying a film’s value always increases in proportion to its length (at this point we can all insert our own bloated examples of why that wouldn’t work). And I’m not saying either that its emotional impact necessarily depends on how difficult it is. Without being particularly long or particularly difficult to watch, the current film Monster’s Ball seems to me to illustrate a triumph of the human spirit quite well. Again, I’m not sure anyone has described it in those terms. It’s certainly been praised though – Roger Ebert called it the best film of 2001. That’s going a little far, although not as far as his citations of Eve’s Bayou and Dark City in previous years. But it’s a moving, enveloping film that earns its happy ending in sweat and blood that you can smell and taste.
Monster’s Ball

It’s basically the story of an unlikely relationship between a prison guard (Billy Bob Thornton) and the widow (Halle Berry) of a man he escorted on death row; set in a small Southern town. These are small-scale lives, moving between home and work and the local diner; sons unthinkingly follow the career paths of their fathers (and, as shown in a witty juxtaposition, even adopt the same sexual position with the same local prostitute); casual racism’s still part of the fabric.

Like several recent movies, Monster’s Ball owes an awful lot to its actors. Halle Berry deserved the Oscar for Best Actress for this performance. The moment when she initiates sex with Thornton is shocking in the intensity of its emotion and in the completely unexpected way it tears open her grief and loneliness. And Thornton is almost as amazing. He starts out almost as a dead man walking, embodying racist attitudes and family hatred that he doesn’t really feel deeply, but doesn’t think of questioning. By the end of the movie, he’s worked his way to real tenderness. The characterizations are so good that they almost break loose from the rest of the movie, into some transcendent, psychologically acute bubble.

The film is distinctly marred though by excessive melodrama and schematicism in its plotting. In its first half, both characters are visited by Job-like misfortune; they both lose a son, she loses her husband, they both all but lose their souls. It’s too much, although I’m not suggesting this is unconscious. I suppose the film aims to place itself on the edge of Biblical tragedy, and then to claw back through the sensitivity and imagination of its artistry. Somewhat incredibly, it largely succeeds in this.

Judgments of racism

When the two get together, the film narrows its focus, allowing the numerous seeds sown in the first half to come to fruition. This allows the film’s essential softness to come to the fore, which is a mixed blessing – for example, Thornton’s developing friendship with a black man he scorned at the start seems too easy a symbol of his inner transformation. That friendship also strikes of calculation – as if the filmmakers were worried that the audience would suspect the motives of a white man who sleeps with a black woman, unless it were clear that he gets on with other black people as well.

It’s amazing to reflect how few films depict a sexual relationship between a white man and a black woman – so few that to some the images inherently convey paternalism and exploitation. Rick Groen in the Globe and Mail, for reasons I found a little bizarre, accused Monster’s Ball of coming close to racism. This judgment, as he frames it, seems to depend less on what’s in the film than on a preconceived opinion on what constitutes acceptable rules of engagement across colour lines. Monster’s Ball certainly supports a debate on that point, but I don’t think it’s diminished by it.

I can report that Monster’s Ball has a happy ending, something that seemed highly in question throughout the movie. It’s tinged by impermanence, but as the film ends, the characters have something workable in place. It definitely wouldn’t have been a surprise if the film had ended in gloom – the fact that it doesn’t is a relief, a minor joy, and seems frankly like a matter of optimism on the part of its makers. So there’s your triumph of the human spirit. Monster’s Ball is flawed for sure, but it’s one of the rare movies that scores the double – worthy of both the multiplex and the Cinematheque.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Iris' defeat

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2002)

Alzheimer’s disease is tragic whenever it strikes, and I doubt many of us can watch a film on the subject without descending into morose speculation about our own futures. My grandmother had it, and my only personal consolation is that I was probably too young to appreciate the full extent of what had happened to her. Ronald Reagan is probably the most famous current sufferer, but his family and the media have been discreet in not telling or showing us too much of his condition. The one I always think about is Rita Hayworth – one of the most beautiful women who ever appeared on the screen. She was no more than 60, and could have achieved much more.

An awful reckoning

It’s a long time since I started on article on such a personal note, and it’s not necessarily a tribute to Iris, the film that prompts this beginning. If the movie were better, I would want to write about the movie. Since it is what it is, I find myself thinking more about the disease.

A few months ago I quoted a writer who criticized the movie Ali for not depicting Ali’s Parkinson’s disease – he called the impairment of the champion’s unique gifts of movement and speech “a reckoning that might have come out of Greek tragedy.” I wrote that I didn’t see how a depiction of this period of Ali’s life could have avoided morose irony and reductive metaphor, falling far short of Greek tragedy. I now feel even more confident in this judgment, because Iris has a very similar “reckoning,” and the film’s impact is almost exactly as I anticipated.

I’ve never read any of Iris Murdoch’s work, although I feel I’ve always known about her. But like many others I assume, my view of her now has been largely defined by her Alzheimer’s. It’s a shame it’s that way, but her husband John Bayley’s memoir of her decline has been hard to avoid. In addition to Bayley’s book, there’s been at least one widely reviewed biography of Murdoch, not to mention numerous articles and obituaries that attended her death and the run-up to the new film. These articles all discuss her youthful promiscuity, her charisma and intellect and interest in ethics and morals. But most of all they discuss her Alzheimer’s.

Dimming the light

The film’ success or failure probably depends on your reaction to its one major structural decision. It intertwines the young Iris, meeting Bayley at Oxford, embarking on a relationship with him despite continuing to sleep with other men; and the old, long-married couple as her disease takes hold and eventually consumes her. The contrast heightens our sense of the ultimate tragedy, and as I mentioned already, there’s an obvious irony in the dimming by Alzheimer’s of an intellect as vibrant and forceful as Murdoch’s.

But the film shows us nothing at all of her creative prime. There’s a scene of the young Iris spellbinding a dinner group with her wit and verbal agility, and a fascinating one of the old Iris and Bayley in the supermarket, chattering away in an idiom that’s simultaneously brilliant and batty. We see her delivering a speech on the importance of education. But we never learn anything tangible about her books or her ideas. We see her working on her last novel, but the film makes so much of her difficulties in concentrating that it’s frankly incredible, on the basis of what’s shown, that she could ever have completed it. (In reality, and as shown in the film, by the time the book was published she couldn’t recognize it as her own work, and reviewers noted a distinct decline in clarity and quality.)

Such deficiencies are common of course in films that purport to portray genius – A Beautiful Mind is another recent example where we must take Nash’s brilliance largely on faith. But that film has a more obvious populist intent, not least because it leads toward personal triumph rather than defeat. Iris takes an approach that seems much more reductive and unsatisfying. It’s quite a short film, lasting just an hour and a half, and yet still feels rather protracted and repetitive. Occasionally the juxtaposition of the young and the old Iris produces some frisson or grace note. But the artistic point is usually obscure.

Indeed, the structure does more to reveal Bayley than Iris. In one scene, lying in bed beside her, he rages against her for her promiscuity. Even though she’s far beyond comprehension, she moves closer, as though to comfort him. It’s a striking moment, and the effect of it is certainly deeper for the numerous earlier scenes of the young Bayley just watching her, time and time again, as ego or life force or sheer delight lead her desires temporarily away from him.

Sop to sentimentality

The film owes a lot to its actors – hence the Oscar nominations for Judi Dench and Kate Winslet as the old and young Iris, and the win for Jim Broadbent as the old Bayley. It also owes a lot to the art and set directors who constructed the eye-poppingly messy house of the couple’s later years. But in the end, it’s no more or less moving than its subject. I didn’t like the midway twist of A Beautiful Mind (in which we learn that some of what we’ve seen to that point has been a product of Nash’s imagination, and therefore realize the depth of his self-delusion) as much as many people did. But I couldn’t help thinking that Iris needed something like that – some kind of cinematic springboard, even if one in danger of seeming over-facile.

Early on in the progress of the disease, Bayley speculates for the doctor that maybe Iris hasn’t left language behind, maybe there’s still meaning in her behaviour that they must try harder to locate. Nothing in the movie supports that hypothesis, and I don’t suppose studies of Alzheimer’s would bear him out. And yet, the film would have benefited had it surrendered to that idea, even for a few minutes. Even if it were merely a sop to sentimentality, I wish that one of those scenes of Murdoch just existing, her lights having long dimmed, could have zoomed in through her eyes via some kind of digital technology flourish, flowed down the optic nerve and tumbled into the cerebral cortex, where we’d find intact her memory and analytical power and wordplay and books not yet written. Sure, it’s a “grass is greener”-type thing to say: if the film had done just as I suggested, maybe I would have criticized it for losing its nerve. But as the movie stands now, I rather wonder why anyone wanted to make it at all.