Sunday, 25 January 2015

Wolf Hall

One of the most annoying criticisms directed towards films and TV shows is to say ‘the book was better’. Bookworms passionate about a particular novel are often reluctant to concede that any adaptation could ever hope to be as good as the original, especially if it so much as dares to change key details of the plot, and their suspicions are backed up by the long and still widely-held prejudice that written works are inherently superior to visual forms of entertainment. Such a view overlooks how much filmed versions can add to a story, and how intelligent cinematography, acting and editing can be just as powerful as any well-crafted sentence.

Thomas Cromwell
But sometimes the qualities that make a certain novel so good is very difficult to translate to the screen, and in these cases the book simply is better than the filmed version. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies, for instance, brilliantly exploits all of the unique advantages of its novelistic form - the ability to express the protagonist (Thomas Cromwell)’s internal thoughts and feelings, the space to go into rich detail to build the world the characters inhabit, and the scope to go at its own pace and not be compromised by a limited length.

As fine an adaptation the BBC’s six-part series Wolf Hall appears to be based on last week’s opening episode, it will inevitably be limited by its form. Tom Rylance’s brilliantly understated and muted performance hints at the depth of Cromwell’s thoughts, but will never be as intimate as the access granted in the novel, while although writer Peter Straughan has paced proceedings at an admirably unhurried pace, there is too much to fit in in too small a time to replicate the gradual unfolding of diplomatic processes that made the novels so tense and gripping.

What the material really needs is more episodes. The golden age of television currently being enjoyed over in the US has been based on dramas that contain 12/13 hour-long episodes, and are commissioned for multiple seasons. Such a form retains the advantages of on-screen entertainment while relating far more closely to the pacing of a novel, with more room to fully develop characters and with each episode translating to a chapter. Just look at the success of The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad, which are all among the most popular and acclaimed works of art of the past few decades.

There aren’t any 6-part single-series TV shows that can claim such success, as the form itself is a sort of unhappy medium between the longer serialised drama and the shorter feature film. Rather than cover one chapter, each episode of Wolf Hall will have to squeeze in a whole third of one of the novels, and although the authentic use of candlelight makes for impressively gloomy look, the production is still no-where near the level of a film adaptation. As such moments like the death of Cromwell’s family does not carry as much dramatic weight as it should, and there isn’t enough going on in the cinematography to raise the show to anything more than a rushed, straightforward retelling of the novels.

So long as British television remains reluctant to commission more long-term, ambitious serialised drama, it will continue to lag behind the US. Wolf Hall certainly looks like one of the best BBC dramas in a while, but the nagging suspicion remains that the bulging potential of the novels would have been better realised in the hands of the US networks. 

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Paddington: The problem of all-white casts

Paul King’s Paddington has been widely praised for adapting the story of the famous Peruvian bear looking for a home in London into a contemporary immigrant-fearing British society - but is the film quite as inclusive as it at first seems?

The Brown family are initially reluctant to adopt Paddington, with the household father particularly suspicious of his unkempt manners and exotic marmalade-based diet, but gradually come to accept him as one of their own. The message is clear: contrary to UKIP’s fear-mongering, decent Brits warmly welcome strangers into their hearts, even if they are 3’6’’, wear ill-fitting hats and possess an awkward knack for knocking things over.

But despite this well-meaning intention, the film subscribes to the problematic view that social issues can be solved by the charitable discretion of the wealthy. The affluent Brown family decide to let him stay as the alternative - an ‘institution’, mentioned with a shudder down the spine - is so awful. The implication being that state welfare is ineffective, and better left for noble-minded individuals like themselves to resolve.  

This social conservatism is consistent with the film’s quaint, sanitised depiction of London, where friendly posh eccentrics abide and anyone with a cockney accent is not to be trusted. Ethnic minorities are consigned to the background, and even Paddington, despite himself being an immigrant, speaks in a refined British accent without a hint of foreign dialect.   

Such lack of diversity is characteristic of British film and television, and is in urgent need of addressing. At present, only 5% of those working in the creative industries are Black, Asian or of an ethnic minority, despite representing 12.5% of the UK population.With an all-white main cast Paddington is no exception, and is perhaps more culpable for celebrating the virtues of ethnic diversity while hypocritically not making room for a single non-white face in its main cast. When even a supposedly liberal-minded film fails to do this, it's clear that British film and television are a long way off sincerely embracing multiculturalism.


Sunday, 18 January 2015



It is hardly a shock to see Steve Carell dominate the publicity for Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher. His performance, playing against type as a real-life madman and murderer , is nothing short of bedevilling. With the help of various prosthetic features, the familiar comedian exudes an eerie chill as the millionaire-turned wrestling sponsor who became ensnared in his own destructive mental breakdown. His demeanour is deliberately languid – though no less menacing – and, I believe, wholeheartedly worthy of the announced Oscar nomination.

Nevertheless, this subtly poised piece of acting is the focal point for elegant, serene and dazzling directing from the man behind Moneyball and Capote. Dwelling in moments devoid of dialogue or narrative pacing, the camera still captures the nuances and complexity of a man-made emotional mess.

Let’s face it; Olympic wrestling is an incredibly homoerotic sport. Miller’s script does nothing to diminish that unflattering image. The long, periodic training sequences have no rousing backing music or rapid montage รก la Rocky. Instead they conjure up the same dark bodily fascination as Black Swan. It’s intimate, social and undoubtedly weird to see two men grope each other in such a contrived fashion. No wonder it has made such a fascinating film subject.

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) returns from the 1984 Olympics as a world champion but unable to escape his elder brother David’s (Mark Ruffalo) shadow. The unexpected intervention of super-rich philanthropist and egotist John du Pont (Steve Carell) offers a way to riches and fame in the sport that Mark loves. But at what personal cost?

Male angst is thrown about the script like a match-winning pin between two Herculean figures. All there is to be seen is men throwing about their bulk – physical or mental – in order to influence the ultimately fatal powerplays shown between the strutting characters. For this level of testosterone-laden drama there is not a single actor more dependable than Ruffalo. Once again he adds layers of unforeseen depth to a reasonably sane, run-of-the-mill everyman. And indeed, the young pretender, Channing Tatum, finally accomplishes the heights to which he has always teased audiences with. I always knew he had it in him (even after The Eagle) but it has taken longer than I had hoped for his dramatic talent to truly be revealed.

This male trio lock horns at the command of a director who is crafting astonishing pieces of art. Yes, I did just use the ‘a’ word, for this, given its full due, is a masterful canvas of human and natural frailty. The minutes of inconsequential acting and filming, which nonetheless crank up to a compelling climax, make that case alone.

If all other contenders match up to Foxcatcher, then the 2015 awards season will be a fantastic advertisement for the dwindling medium of cinema. 


Tuesday, 6 January 2015



Who honestly expected Paddington to be any good? The modern retelling of a much-cherished children’s tale is always a tricky business. These hallowed texts are protected by a cultural aegis, it seems, often defended with a natural distrust of movie adaptations.

Michael Bond’s stories of a notorious domesticated bear are even more precious due to the sublime illustrations and animations of the books, then later, the televisions series. Surely a cinematic CGI version would merely serve as another disappointing digital airbrushing of an adored character? A strict ‘hands off!’ warning seemed in order. And yet, this gloriously colourful film is the surprise hit of the year.

Suitable for both children and adults in equal measure, the new outing for the Peruvian bear is a jolly feast of smiles and happiness. The sensation of watching it is like being softly cooed by Test Match Special as you chew on toffees in a warm pair of slippers. It really is the pinnacle of reassuring viewing.

When an earthquake devastates his home, a young bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) takes an adventure to London where he hopes to begin a new life. The Brown family take pity on this exiled orphan and allow him into their home. So it is that this misfit causes a stir in the capital, no less than with an obsessed taxidermist (Nicole Kidman).

With a cast this impressive there was no chance of it being anything but marvellous. Julie Walters, Hugh Bonneville and, of course, Jim Broadbent all perform their usual routines. Plus the ever-impressive Sally Hawkins sparkles yet again in a charming role whilst the inclusion of Nicole Kidman as the pantomime villain wins the award for most unusual casting decision of 2014. Her character opens up some dubious publicity for the Natural History Museum, but then, the climax played out in its grand halls is a child-friendly slice of Hitchcockian thrills.

You are never too old to enjoy something sweet. This charming film makes children of us all.


Monday, 5 January 2015

Top 10 Films of the Year: Part 2

5. Frank

The brilliance of Frank is encapsulated by two performance scenes that bookend the film: the first, when protagonist Jon first steps onto the stage with the band, captures the exhilarating experience of the their music and the profound strangeness of the papier-mache-headed lead singer Frank (Michael Fassbender); the second again reinforces all these elements, only this time with an added emotional punch that ninety minutes of intelligent character development and honest portrayals of mental illness and artistic creativity sets up.

4. Under the Skin

British director Jonathan Glazer’s latest was a thrillingly avant-garde film about an alien (Scarlett Johansson) roaming the streets of Glasgow, which looked and sounded like nothing ever to have appeared on a cinema screen before. The alien spaces and imagery are totally devoid of sci-fi cliches and look genuinely extraterrestrial, provoking the kind of awe and eeriness you’d imagine from contact with a new sentient species. Then there’s the unforgettable score, full of hypnotic drums and icy strings that chill the bone and haunt you long after the film’s end.

3. The Lego Movie

This year’s biggest hit at the UK box office was also the funniest, a near-miracle for what initially looked like little more than a feature length advert for a toy. A hilarious script with a smart satirical undercurrent was devised, and brought to life both by an inspired cast that blended big Hollywood names (Morgan Freeman, Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrell) with some of the best performers in the US’ thriving sit-com scene (Chris Pratt and Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation, Alison Brie from Community, Charlie Day from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Will Arnett from Arrested Development), and a startlingly original form of digital animation devised to retain the idiosyncrasies of lego blocks while sending them on a dazzling fast-pace big screen adventure. As promised, it was awesome.

2. Whiplash

J.K. Simmons’ performance as jazz teacher Terrence Fletcher in Whiplash must be seen to be believed - he is at once unstable, inspiring, hilarious and utterly monstrous, one of cinema’s most fascinating creations. Miles Teller gives as good as he gets as driven student drummer Andrew, and forms a fascinating dynamic with his teacher that forms the heart of the film. One electrifying scene follows another and somehow the film gets better and better, up until an explosive crescendo in the finale that will leave you breathless.

1. Boyhood

It’s almost become boring to see Boyhood pop up on yet another end of year top ten list, but that shouldn't cloud just how extraordinary a film it is. Over one hundred years since films first started being made, Richard Linklater has demonstrated how there still exists new ways of telling a story with his unique long-term structure. For the first time ever audiences at the cinema were able to watch both a character and an actor literally growing up, and the experience was remarkably immersive and involving.

Both audiences and critics loved it - it is one of those rare films to have gained 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and near-universal five star reviews, as well as feature in the top 100 of IMDB’s top 250 films. When future generations look back at 2014, it will surely be remembered as as the year Boyhood was released.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Top 10 Films of the Year: Part 1

Stephen Puddicombe chooses his favourite films from 2014. 

10. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

This year’s installment of the Hunger Games franchise has been deemed the worst so far by most commentators, with most criticism directed towards the lack of on-screen action brought about by the decision to cut the final book into two films. But one consequence of this now sadly standard practice is to pare down this installment into a sleek, straightforward plot dramatising the propaganda war between Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and the rebels, and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and the government. Thanks to some astute satire and involving characterisation, this is an intelligent and rousing film in its own right that exposes the laziness of the scripts in most other blockbusters.

9. The Raid 2

Gareth Evans’ ultra-violent martial arts sequel may neither have neither been as purely visceral nor breathtakingly original as the first film, but it remained the most thrilling action film of the year by some distance. It never really justifies the 2-and-a-half-hour running time, and does not fulfill its epic scope with the necessary substance. But no matter - the stunning choreography confirms Evans as the most talented director of action sequences around, and this sequel is alive with imaginative ideas and extraordinary stunts that make the more mediocre plotting well worth sitting through.

8. Birdman

One of the year’s most audacious films was Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman, which (thanks to the occasional digital trick) looks as though it was shot in one very, very long continuous take. This restless, insomniatic editing aptly reflects the psyches of the cast, most of whom are anxiety-ridden actors whose anxieties threaten to overflow at any moment and jeopardise the Raymond Carver adaptation they’re rehearsing for. Ex-Batman Michael Keaton is captivating as the director of the play haunted by his past Hollywood role as superhero ‘Birdman’ in a meta-commentary typical of the film, while Edward Norton hilariously sends himself up as a pretentious method actor. An exhilarating, if a little indulgent, ride.

7. Two Days, One Night

The Dardennes brothers use a simple premise to tackle a big theme: employees of a small Belgian factory are forced to choose between accepting their end of year bonuses or allowing Sandra - who has been off work suffering from depression - to keep her job, leaving Sandra two days and one night to one-by-one convince each of sixteen colleagues to vote for her. At a time of zero-hour contracts and vanished trade unions, this film is well in touch with the zeitgeist, and naturalistic performances from the cast (especially the brilliant Marion Cotillard) effectively dramatises a troubling social issue at a very personal level.

6. The Babadook

One of the best horror films of the decade, The Babadook announced a major new talent in director Jennifer Kent. By emphasising character and emotion over cheap thrills and jumps, she breathed new life into tired horror tropes, and provided a timely reminder of the genre’s potential to inventively explore potent themes likes grief and motherhood.The Babadook itself is less a monster of the external world than it is the manifestation of deep, dark internal thoughts - and is for that reason all the more scary.