House of Tolerance – Empire review

House of Tolerance

A group of Parisian prostitutes from a struggling backstreet brothel rely on friendship and sisterhood to get them through each day.


Hidden in the backstreets of Paris lies Bertrand Bonello’s House Of Tolerance. A brothel at night,by day a home for hookers; prey to a debt-riddled Madame and the secret wants of masked men. Washing champagne and semen from their skin, Bonello’s sex workers cajole, caress and dress in careworn finery before drifting downstairs to wait idly on their regulars. Ritually humiliated, they’re still capable of a potent sisterhood. We’re thrown into this world headfirst, in the period detail and the grace of an ensemble cast spurred by the easy motions of Bonello’s camera. But this grows overlong, opaque and impressionistic, the spattering of lucid drama swallowed by scenes of ogling fetish.


Erotically charged but overlong and untroubled by too much plotting.

Published in Empire January 2012 edition


Mother and Child review – Little White Lies


Mother and Child is another helping of what’s known as the ‘lasagne’ movie; layer after layer of narrative melted together with rich character arcs, seasoned with Emotional Scenes and some tasteful acting.

Director Rodrigo García introduces us to Karen (Annette Bening), caring for her ageing mother and peeking at life suspiciously before returning to her shell. Enter Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), a poised and remote lawyer with implacable self-control and a disgust for domesticity. She is followed by Lucy (Kerry Washington) who, unable to become pregnant, seeks to adopt another woman’s baby.

Karen gave up her child and Elizabeth was adopted by a couple she no longer knows.These are the first suds of a billowing soap opera; of hope, loss and regret, of intimacy with strangers, of searching and waiting to be found. Mother and Child bears the fingerprints of exec-producer Alejandro González Iñárritu, the doyen of unlikely harmony, in its reverent tone, its knotted structure, its faith in the flowering dramas of reconciliation.

And yet Iñárritu is maybe most noticeable in his absence; think of the way Amores Perros and Mexico City are one and the same; or the way the undergrowth of Barcelona bursts from the screen in Biutiful – not so for Mother and Child.

A film this laconically paced and loosely plotted needs its environ to pick up the slack and stretch it out, but the Los Angeles of Rodrigo García is at odds with the neon circus of more visually inventive filmmakers. Hushed, discreet and cool, it’s a sprawl of picket fences and furnished lawns where private concerns quietly unspool. Too quietly, in this case.

As these separate lives collide, conjoin and intersect, a host of needling questions emerge. What does it mean to lose one’s mother, or to give up one’s child? Is adoption, as the film seems to toy with, really a juncture from the natural order of things? With more creative bravery, García will grow into a director of depth and imagination. But Mother and Child is too dutiful, overly sincere and its impressions are easily washed away.

Published in the Shame issue, Little White Lies


Oranges and Sunshine Review

Jim Loach shows it runs in the family with this quiet, searing drama.

Who do we blame when hurt is caused by good intention? Who do we hold to account when things done with noble will go horribly wrong?

These questions, so often ignored, lie at the heart of Oranges and Sunshine, the deeply humanist new British film from director Jim Loach.

As if the pressures aren’t already enough, there is an extra weight of expectancy placed on this debut. The shadow of the director’s father –  Ken Loach, the man who gave British cinema the flat-voweled voice of Thatcher’s unwanted citizens – lies across this film.

So Jim Loach has taken on a story that at first glimpse seems mired in his father’s time and place – Nottinghamshire in the 1980s – but is actually searingly of its time.

In February last year Gordon Brown rose to the dispatch box and attempted to explain why tens of thousands of British children were plucked from an over-wrought welfare system, told their mothers and fathers were dead and shipped off to work in the Australian colonies, often ending up as the victims of institutional abuse. Brown offered to help these displaced orphans trace their lost families. Then, on behalf of the country, he apologised unreservedly.

That he did so was largely due to the campaign of social worker Margaret Humphreys, played here with characteristic discretion by the lovely Emily Watson. Humphreys, with the initial backing of the local authorities, spent 23 years listening to the stories of child migrants before searching for their lost parents, and has been gifted a CBE and a biopic for her efforts.

As Loach’s film shows, some of these people have to learn how to live with fathers who walked out, with women who bore them but could not raise them. For others, they had stone graves and hazy anecdotes waiting for comfort; their reunion came too late.

In its depiction of one woman’s assault on the pernicious culture of Government knows best, this could and sometimes threatens to be a triumphalist piece of the individual over establishment.

At its worst, we see slow montages of older Australian men – to whom we are never properly introduced – stuttering and choking as they recall the years of abuse they suffered at the isolated orphanage in which they were raised. This abuse was physical and sexual and to exhume it places the film on precarious ground. Pity can go too far, and misery is cheap and easy; a perishable commodity.

But Loach, in his father’s best tradition, manages to steer the film to the fault-lines of broken restraint, showing wounds that open and close just as quickly. These moments reach out from the screen, like Hugo Weaving’s Jack, his skin like tan leather, his shirt flapping in the sea breeze – living, in image alone, the Australian dream – telling Watson’s Margaret he doesn’t know where he came from, or even who he is. Or David Wenham’s Len, the macho man who can go it alone before revealing a nervous boy beneath as he approaches the house of the mother he never knew he had.

This is softly rendered, and not exactly interrogative. Margaret Humphreys is held aloft in her simple goodness (“I don’t ever lie,” she says to a heckling woman, placing a measured emphasis on each word that we’re never given cause to question), and as the film rushes to its climax, it begins to veer from knock-out scene to knock-out scene, unravelling some of the sensitivities and carefully posed questions of its earlier acts.

But no matter. This is a film of brevity, depth and regard; desperately sad, but as clear and honest as a voice across water. Ken, the boy’s done you proud.

Biutiful Review

Biutiful is the latest installment in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ongoing campaign to prove life-is-hard-but-yet-we-are-all-connected.

His previous films Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel were branded ‘the death trilogy,’ and Biutiful is no departure. His humanist brand of filmmaking always has latent conflict at its core; conflict with our past, our bodies, our poverty-induced morality.

Here, his vessel is Javier Bardem’s Uxbal, a gentle, weary man trying to make ends meet in the labyrinthine backstreets of Barcelona. Uxbal has two small children, a bipolar wife and a scumbag of a brother. He tries, vainly, to provide street work for African immigrants facing deportation and is single handedly responsible for the fate of 24 Chinese blackmarket workers. He has no food and a rotting home and is forced to cremate his buried father for a few more Euros. Oh yeah, and he’s terminally ill with cancer.

Quite a lot to deal with for one bloke, but if anyone can shoulder it, Javier Bardem can. Bardem is known to most cinema-goers as the remorseless murderer with the dodgy bowl-cut in No Country For Old Men and Woody Allen’s fantasy avatar in Vicki Cristina Barcelona, but prior to Hollywood he had a long and extensive career as Spain’s leading man, building a rep as an actor with serious character pedigree. He spent most of his time in a wheelchair in Pedro Almodovar’s acclaimed Live Flesh before gaining international recognition playing the rebellious Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls and an impressionable detective in John Malkovich’s The Dancer Upstairs.

As Live Flesh proved, Bardem has never possessed qualms about challenging his sex symbol status. He lost some serious weight for this film and, beyond sporting a ponytail, has to act in scenes when he repeatedly wets himself, urinates blood or, at one point, wears a nappy to show in unflinching detail the worst indignities of a cancer sufferer. He is in virtually every scene, many of them wordless, and carries the whole thing on his back. It is, by any standards, a heavyweight performance.

And thank God it is. Biutiful is Iñárritu’s first film that doesn’t involve his longtime screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga after they suffered a very public falling out. Iñárritu has never possessed subtly, but Arriaga would add intrigue by weaving their films around one tragic event, elusively shifting timeframes and perspectives, and his absence here proves almost terminal. Biutiful has none of these kaleidoscope complexities. Instead, it’sa  painfully linear melodrama that begins to labour with a leaden monotony. The increasingly portentous sense of grandiosity never breaks or alleviates, and Iñárritu is forced to overcompensate. As such, the occasional flashes of brilliance that he is so abundantly capable of – like the opening scene, in which two hands slowly circle and lace, or the moment Uxbal hears his daughter’s heartbeat as he draws her close, or the overhead sequence when police chase street vendors who scatter like startled deer – are swallowed up, suffocated by overwrought overstatement.

The film is dedicated to Iñárritu’s father, and it seems he has become too close to what can justifiably be termed a passion project. We are all allowed our indulgences but, for the sake of cinema everywhere, let us hope he gives Arriaga a call, and gives peace a chance.

The Road: Review

“The Frailty of Everything Revealed at Last.”

The Road is a mosaic of a nameless Man’s devotion to his innocent son as they travel together across America, struggling constantly with the rigours of survival in a squandered world plagued by the dark heart of humanity in the death throes of extinction.

In crystal-clear clarity, director John Hillcoat has successfully managed to harness the underlying human narrative at the heart of Cormac McCarthy’s epic novel.

As such, the film’s immense, moving power derives from its ability to focus unflinchingly on the immediate; the pressing search for food and warmth, the “great fear” of succumbing to cannibalism, the ruthless, indifferent crucible of nature.

The past, and with it the causes of the present, remain shrouded in ambiguity, glimpsed only in half-caught dreams and recollections too harrowing to pursue.

In this harsh lexicon of bare survival, The journey of the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) leads to numerous encounters with equally nameless characters whom are neatly polarised as “good guys” and “bad guys.”

Each of these are archetypal in their Americanisms; from Michael K Williams’ victimised, black loner, to Guy Pearce’s gruff, soulful huntsmen, to the sallow, nightmarishly violent gangs of redneck bandits.

But the film and novel as a whole is equally steeped in the nation’s cinematic and literary traditions. The Road possesses tropes of the pioneering Western canon whilst inversing its basic premise; the Man and the Boy are heading East on a road already trod by a people now passed.

As such, The Road can undoubtably be regarded as one of the noughties’ truly masterful portrayals of Americana.

But parallels can be drawn from further afield. The Road expresses the American sensibility as Children of Men expressed that of the British – both dystopias are sculpted by their residual societal traits.

The narrative of Children of Men is sustained through Clive Owen’s  journey from pacified resignation to proactive protector. In The Road, the Man’s commitment to a better future is never in question. As such, the film is given a freer licence to explore the  theological aspects of an anarchy born of near apocalypse.

Talking of his Boy, the Man says:

“If he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.”

This theistic proclamation is refuted by Robert Duvall’s old man, who mistook the boy for an angelic bringer of death.

“God has left us,” he tells the Man in the darkness of night.

The scene recalls Primo Levi’s dismissal of his fellow prisoner’s prayers in the depths of Auschwitz after a round of selections for the gas chamber. As he writes in If This Is a Man:

“If I were God, I would spit on his prayers.”

This is not to say The Road is without fault. In a quest to adequately dramatize McCarthy’s  elegiac prose, director John Hillcoat does at times allow the film to stray too far from the source material. Some vignettes linger longer than they should, whilst others conclude prematurely.

Joe Penhall has also chosen to create Viggo Mortensen’s voice-over narration, only lifting occasional lines directly from the novel. A literal retelling of Cormac McCarthy’s original prose would have elevated the film to a more poetical plain. But Penhall’s transparent adaption at times belies a guilty appeasement of the populist ethic.

In a similar vein, Nick Cave’s musical score imposes itself a little needily on occasion, and the sometimes syrupy melodies that punctuate The Road seem to be an overcompensation for the scoring of The Assassination of Jesse James, which verged on the oblique and the alienating.

But travelling home tonight, with the road covered in week-old slush hardening with the arctic temperatures of nightfall, it became clear how poignantly relevant this film is, and how abundant and transient our shared existence is.

It is the embers of civilisation that the Man and his Boy carry with them and hold so dear, the same civilisation with which we so restlessly immerse ourselves, and which acts as such a pacifying prozac.

Who knows which way our road will lead, or what decisions we will have to make, but at this current juncture we still possess a choice so nakedly stripped of the inhabitants of McCarthy’s apocalypse.

In this sense, The Road may not be an abstract illustration or a hypothetical illusion, but a secular presage.

Equally evocative of an eternal Americana, Robert Frost writes the following:

“…long I stood, and looked down a road as far as I could, to where it bent in the undergrowth…I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence…”

Revolutionary Road

The Truth Behind the White Picket Fence

Sam Mendes’ first film, American Beauty, was a depiction of the emptiness at the heart of the modern American’s middle-class lifestyle.

After two films of reasonably varied subject matter (Road to Perdition, Jarhead), Mendes has turned his gaze once again upon the thing that lurks underneath the kitchen sink and behind the white picket fence by adapting Richard Yates’1962 novel for the screen.

In Revolutionary Road the setting is America of the 1950s, but the themes of stasis, escapism, longing and unfullfilment are still very much the same.

Revolutionary Road is a depiction of the relationship between Frank and April Wheeler, a young, picturesque couple who meet at a party. Frank is a confident, dynamic, idealistic and impulsive guy, April a cultured, self-possessed and sensual woman.

They both share a passion and zest for life and yearn for spontaneity and for “feeling alive.” They fall very quickly and very deeply in love, invigorated at the thought of the bigger dreams that could be achieved together.

Frank and April Meet
Before they have chance to catch their breath, they have signed up. They get married, she falls pregnant and they buy a whitewashed house on Revolutionary Road where they can raise a family.

He becomes the breadwinner, but hates the anodyne banality of his job. As he shuffles between work and home, surrounded by men of near-identical, Lowryesque dress and hue, it is clear he perceives both as a cage.

April, meanwhile, packs away her ambitions to act and instead stays at home to play the housewife, dust the coffee table and drink coffee with elderly neighbours. Both develop a deep resentment towards the cultivated lifestyle they have built together.

They separately question why a model of living that seems to bring contentment and satisfaction to their neighbours and friends can stultify them to such an excruciating degree. Inflicted with such loneliness and anxious ennui, they suffer and cause suffering in equal measure.

Together and separately, they grapple with the same recurring questions. Are they somehow special, or are they just the same as everyone else? Can they together overcome the sense of “hopeless emptiness,” as Frank calls it, which seems to surround them, or have they merely not yet resigned themselves to the inevitable and unavoidable inhibitions of adult life?

Frank and April are stymied with self-consciousness. They ask, without hope of an answer, if it is they who are in the wrong, who are somehow inherently “wrong” due to their feelings of intense suffocation, or whether they possess a superior sense of existentialism and a more material commitment to their lives to that of their contemporaries.

Peter Bradshaw writes in his review:
“There will be some in the audience who might not have the stomach for this, or think it freighted with precisely the kind of provincialism that Frank and April are trying to reject.

But there are real ideas here, ideas about intimacy and our sense of ourselves, about how much of these individual selves has to be abandoned in the service of a marriage, about whether this abandonment is tragic or if marriage is itself a silent, private, preordained tragedy.”

Together, they devise a plan of mouth-watering potential and romance. They will sell their house, withdraw their savings and move to Paris. April will work as a secretary whilst Frank can take some time and finally work out what he wants to do with his life.

The plan regalvanises their relationship, and for a time it appears they have rediscovered whatever it is that was lost in their mutual conformity to society’s plan. Suddenly, they cannot take their hands off each other and seem at odds when they stand apart, as if a single entity had been prised apart.

Revolutionary Road is a contemporary Chekhovian drama; Paris for Frank and April is Moscow for Masha, Irena and Olga. In true Chekhovian form, there are no prizes for guessing their dream never materialises.

Instead, it becomes a fantasy that the characters grip hold of, which they trade with and threaten to withdraw, and which propels them into a state of self-delusional destructionism.

April becomes a picture of feminine poise and reserve, constantly appealing for a space and peace to try and “work out” problems that cannot be resolved through silence and self-absorption. The space she craves is something Frank cannot grant her.

He finds her silence and composure unfathomable and disorientating and, in a tangle of typical masculine insecurities, communicates to her through a mixture of frustrated anger, threatening one-upmanship and increasingly desperate requests for reassurance.

She, equally, veers from patronizing his vulnerable boyishness to fiercely and tenderly maternalising him. Both interactions succeed in emasculating him.

The film has been criticized in some quarters as emotionally alienating, dismissing Frank and April as fundamentally dislikeable characters that offer nothing new to a genre that focuses on the tired and worn aspects of adult life and is in itself tired and worn.

They argue it is repetitive and didactic and needlessly cynical about our seemingly natural gravitation towards monogamy.

Cosmo Landesman, of the Times, writes:

“Revolutionary Road recycles all the clichés and stereotypes about suburban life. Instead of showing us something new, we get suburban men with their lives of quiet desperation and weepy, unfulfilled wives on the brink of going gaga. At heart, the trouble with Revolutionary Road is that it has no heart.”

Little White Lies goes even further:

“It’s like a giant roadside advertisement against ever attempting union. It leaves you feeling voyeuristically sullied; scrubbing the blood out of your mental carpet, privy to something simultaneously indulgent and inconsequential.”

I, however, disagree with these sentiments. Revolutionary Road is indicative of a director who has matured vastly over a relatively short career. He displays a cool, almost clinical detachment to his subject matter, authorising two excellent actors to communicate a story which, like it or not, has aching universal relevance.

Frank and April Wheeler may not be representative of mankind, they may not be nice or successful or functional people, but you cannot accuse their fate of being unique. If anything, their problems are painfully familiar, prevalent behind every drawn curtain and closed front door.

Many couples have the ability to keep a cap on their disparities, or let them eek and leak out slowly. But an inability to come to terms with reality, an inability to support each other when the chips are down, an insistence on not talking about the most difficult topics, or of turning that gleaming analysis of the other upon one’s self. They’re all there, every day, everywhere, all the time, between so many people. Try and tell me they’re not.

This is, in many respects, the same film as American Beauty, just devoid of the abstractions and “this plastic bag is so beautiful” pseudo-sentimentalities that make that film seem, in retrospect and comparison, so unbearably juvenile in its pretensions.

Yes, Revolutionary Road may be cynical and pessimistic and depressing. In terms of subversion, it may not compare to its cinematic ancestors Blue Velvet (David Lynch) and Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes). It may aim to degrade or overtly assault monogamy without suggesting any ulterior lifestyle choice but, unfortunately for the ongoing union of men and women, it cannot be accused of triviality. It is, unfortunately, guilty of quite the opposite.

Duplicity: Review


The title suggests something with two sides, but Duplicity has many more layers than that. It’s a densely coiled plot with a splintered chronology and a mish-mash of competing genres, adept at leaving you guessing and searching for clues.

 Starring Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, who were last seen together in Closer, it is at once a love story,  a topical satire of corporate business and an espionage thriller. They play two ex-agents, respectively MI6 and CIA, now working as industrial spies for a Manhattan cosmetics firm.

By far the strongest part of the film is the way it takes the world of consumerist business to bits. Roberts, who becomes a ‘counter-intelligence’ spy, moles her way into one company whilst working for the other. She is part of an ongoing battle of wit, red herring, bluff and double bluff between the two companies, whom are both competing for the same priceless patent.

The companies’ executives, played by the always watchable Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson, talk grandly of war and strategy, defining moments and hundred year plans. What is it they are in competition to sell? Shampoo and skin cream.

Directed by Tony Gilroy, who is regarded as one of the premier scriptwriters in Hollywood, there is a purposeful classicism and Hitchcockian subtext to the film, the kind of caper you would expect Cary Grant or Katherine Hepburn to have starred in during the Hollywood’s studio age.

There is, however, a nagging feeling that part of Duplicity’s jigsaw is missing. 

Maybe the quality of lead actors isn’t as high anymore, or maybe, in this age of hyper-realism, such a mannered and scripted depiction of imposters, deceptions and confidence tricksters does not have the same appeal as it once did. Or it may simply be that you are never convinced by the relationship between Owen and Roberts who, as the title suggests, circle each other in an ornate dance of desire and hidden agenda. 

The deconstruction of the idea of trust may work in conjunction with rival companies, but the film struggles to make it work when it confronts actual human interaction. Like so many films, it suffers because it cannot engineer that elusive spark.

For all its sides and layers, the film struggles to immerse its audience in its intricate game, and all the flashy suaveness and verbal boxing matches begin to feel like an exercise in CV building for Owen and Roberts and an opportunity for Gilroy to flex his creative muscles.

A film that gleams brightly on the outside, but is hollow within. Hitchcock would be proud.

Quantum of Solace: Review

Any decent Bond film begins with three crucial ingredients- a good soundtrack, a good title, and a storyline you can sum up in a couple of sentences. Quantum of Solace, therefore, is struggling from the word go.

Quantum of Solace is effectively a partner piece to the hugely successful Casino Royale, which introduced Daniel Craig as a new, high octane James Bond who is at once rougher and more soulful than any of his previous reincarnations.

It was an inspired piece of casting, and here Craig continues his rehabilitation of a character that had become a self-parody in the Pierce Brosnan days. Again he puts in an excellent performance, but is unable to carry a film which is, to be honest, a bit of a mess.

For the first time in the Bond franchise, the narrative of one film is allowed to flow organically into the next one. The film starts exactly where Casino Royale ended as Bond attempts to capture the shady criminal Mr White with not one but two chase sequences.

The narrative hook of Quantum of Solace is, or at least should be, the question of whether Bond is pursuing this new criminal underworld out of a sense of duty, or out of revenge and bloodlust for the death of Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), the secret agent he falls in love with and who he suspects of betrayal at the end of Casino Royale.

James Bond the rogue agent is a strong idea, but an idea is all it is. Both dramatically and filmicly, Quantum of Solace fails to harness Bond’s rage and loneliness that is supposed to propel the film forward. As such, solace is never achieved because there is nothing for it to compare to.

Marc Foster was bought in to direct the film because, after films such as Finding Neverland and Monster’s Ball, he was considered a director who could communicate the subtleties of a character. During filming, there were whisperings of continued problems with the film’s script, involving numerous re-writes and doctorings.

As such, one never gets the impression that Foster has been able to marshall his subject matter, or work on the aspects of the franchise he was bought in for.

The film veers manically from frenetic action sequences to scenes that are stodgy, pensive and dialogue heavy. At only 106 minutes long, it is the shortest Bond film but an awful lot is packed in.

The result is confused, disjointed and debilitated by an almost demented sense of energy, as if the director has decided to prioritise breakneck continuity over everything else. One gets the impression there is a good film hidden in here somewhere, but most of it has been left on the cutting room floor.

If Casino Royale was a reclamation of Fleming’s original source material, Quantum of Solace offers a return to the stagnation that had inflicted the franchise. Daniel Craig deserves better.

Hush: Review

♦ ♦ ♦ ◊ ◊

May be worth mentioning before continuing with the review that I have previous with this film. It’s set in the delightful stretch of motorway that passes through my hometown Sheffield and made by the production companies Warp X and Fear Factory, whom I did a bit of work for last year.

I proudly subjected my ex to a very rough cut I managed to coerce the producer into letting me pilfer last year, so seeing it in its final glory in the cinema was a proud moment.

It’s probably worth linking to this video from Mark Kermode, who found himself in a similar situation to me when he reviewed Hush as he is old friends of the director Mark Tonderai. Kermode manages to articulate the difficult position reviewers find themselves in when they have to cover films in which they have a personal connection.

The  mundane banality of dead-end jobs, long-term relationships and ambitions that seem frustratingly unreachable all get us down at some point or other but next time it does, spare a thought for Zakes.

Zakes, the protagonist in the low budget genre horror Hush, has the highly unenviable job of placing ads in the gents of service stations along the M1. On route, he clumsily attempts to field his accompanying girlfriend Beth’s nags about the way he  “talks about writing his book more than doing it” and how he can’t remember a night they spent together on holiday.

Suddenly, the rear door of the dirty white truck on the road ahead flies up to momentarily reveal a screaming, naked girl encased in a wire cage. After calling the police, zakes is initally unsure whether to pursue the truck. Beth is incandescent at his apparent indifference to the plight of the girl, seeing it as somehow indicative of the problems within their own relationship.

At the next service station, an argument ensues and zakes leaves her to wait in the car. While there, he spots the same white truck and attempts to investigate before returning to find her in the service station. She’s no longer there and, in a terrible moment of realisation, zakes realises she has also been abducted.

Hush is Mark Tonderai’s debut feature and, considering his inexperience and the quite intense lack of financial resources at his disposal, he has done impressively well. The film is at once creepy, gripping, disturbing and, in its quieter moments, tender. Accompanied by an atmospheric score, Tonderai manages the feat of sustaining the pace and energy of the film  well as it propels towards the final climax.

Most impressively, as Kermode points out, Tonderai has managed to give the film a distinctive visual style that lends itself well to the subject matter. It is the sign of a director who understands and marshals his subject matter, allowing form to match content. 

Will Ash, who plays zakes, gives a spirited and believable performance, particularly when in the throes of one of the many painful experiences he has to endure throughout the course of the film. Tonderai succeeds in aligning the audience’s perspective with that of Ash’s, and we become caught by the rush he is experiencing.

There are problems, namely in conjunction with a script that at times disturbs the rhythm of the film by becoming too concerned with technical minutia but then becoming over-reliant on unexplained coincidence.  

Regardless, whatever Hush lacks in subtlety it makes up for in unrelenting tension, panache and adventure. It is certainly quite a journey, and I await more from Mark Tonderai.

The Burning Plain: Review

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ◊

The Burning Plain is the directorial debut from the celebrated Mexican scriptwriter Guillermo Arriaga. Arriaga, who penned Amores Perros and 21 Grams, fell out with his artistic partner Alejandro González Iñárritu over the authorial rights to Babel.

Inarritu must be kicking himself, because The Burning Plain is Arriaga’s most searching portrayal of the human condition yet.

Arriaga’s work is characterised by multi-stranded and non-linear narratives in which seemingly unconnected characters, disparate happening and separate timeframes weave together to form a cogent whole.

Guillermo ArriagaWithin this cinematic game of cluedo, he displays an almost unparalleled ability to capture human behaviour at its most frail and damaged. There is always a sense of latent, pernicious conflict-of people struggling against they’re loved ones, their nationalities, their bodies, their pasts, themselves.

The Burning Plain is no different. Charlize Theron, who also produces the film, plays the emotionally withdrawn Sylvia. We first meet her outside the restaurant she owns. Looking out across the sea, she picks up a sharp stone and digs it into her inner-thigh before returning to a motel and trying vainly to find solace in joyless sex with a sports-car driving pursuer.

Kim Basinger and Joaquim de AlmeidaSylvia’s plight is aligned with that of Kim Basinger’s character Gina, an overwrought and delicately feminine housewife whose extramarital affair with an earthy, gentle Mexican farmer (played by Joaquim de Almeida) has provided her with a renewed sense of belonging and a reclamation of her sexuality.

Without giving too much way, a terrible mistake culminates in Almeida’s awkward son Santiago beginning a relationship of impossibly youthful passion with Basinger’s emotionally withdrawn daughter Mariana.

It is clear Arriaga’s direction cannot compare to the occasional cinematic innovation and splendor Iñárritu is capable of. As such, he has reigned himself in and shot the film in uncluttered, streamlined fashion, giving his actors space to communicate their character and allowing the audience to navigate their own way through the film.

His ability to draw lines between seemingly unconnected lives has been condensed. In Babel, the three narratives play out across three separate continents. Here, the drama takes place within a comparatively small geographic space. It has, as such, a hermetic and at times claustophobic quality that juxtaposes the wild, vast panorama in which it is set.

Set in the expanse between Mexico and America, Arriaga captures the landscapes beautifully. The windswept, impassive prairies and crouched, snowcapped mountains provides the drama with the weight of classic, elemental Americana.

Some will find the kaleidoscope style of this story intrusive, while others may find some moments too cliched for comfort and others too obtuse and self-consciously ambiguous. For me, it judged it perfectly, and when the film finally clicked together, the moment of realisation (the reveal) is accompanied by such a visceral sense of rawness it made me grip the arms of the cinema seat.

Arriaga has conjured an intelligent, erotic and mysterious melodrama with moments of true and pure cinematic power, and has established himself as one of the most important filmmakers of his generation.

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