Talking Movies

April 15, 2015

A Little Chaos

Alan Rickman makes an unexpected return to directing nearly twenty years after his first effort, The Winter Guest, with a period drama about Versailles’ creation.

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In Versailles did King Louis XIV (Alan Rickman) a stately pleasure-dome decree. And while the extravagant gardens he demands in 1682 are not quite measureless to man they are certainly too much for Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) to construct single-handedly, so he takes on other landscape gardeners; the most unlikely of which is Madame Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet), a widower who insults Le Notre’s preference for ordered landscapes in her job interview. With the practical help of blunt rival Duras (Steven Waddington), and the political support of the King’s brother Philippe, Duke of Orleans (Stanley Tucci), and Phillipe’s wife Palatine (Paula Paul), Sabine sets to work. But navigating court politics is complicated by her growing attraction to the doleful Le Notre, and the spiteful reaction to her presence by the manipulative and petty Madame Le Notre (Helen McCrory).

Praise first. A Little Chaos looks gorgeous. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras shoots to advantage the rococo production design of James Merifield, and art direction of Kat Law and Sarah Stuart. Joan Bergin’s costumes are sumptuous, Peter Gregson’s score has a memorable and rousing final cue, and supporting turns, from Tucci’s fabulous acerbity, to the impetuosity of Louis XIV’s mistress Madame De Montespan (Jennifer Ehle) and her lover (Rupert Penry-Jones), are delightful. It’s also nice to see Irish theatre star Cathy Belton appear as Sabine’s devoted servant Louise. But my God is it dull… Rickman co-wrote the screenplay with Alison Deegan and Jeremy Brock so he must take the blame for this. There’s a plodding well-made-screenplay feel to far too many scenes; with obnoxious flashbacks to a coach crash, and hallucinations by Sabine of her dead daughter, recalling another BBC film, Creation.

Nobody expects a discourse on the movement from classical garden design to the contrived pastoral of Capability Brown in the manner of Tom Stoppard’s intellectual investigations in Arcadia. But by the end of the film it remains utterly unclear exactly what is so radical about Sabine’s small garden with water feature in the grand scheme of Versailles. And that’s to say nothing of the script’s remarkable failure to establish that Louis XIV is the Sun King. The closing image gestures to it with some elegance, but unless you know your French history well the sharp point to Sabine’s truth-telling speech about needing a little warmth from the sun is completely lost. Schoenaerts and Winslet’s romance lacks spark, and Peaky Blinders’ McCrory is atrocious. McCrory hams like a panto villain as the script lazily instructs her to sneer from first appearance.

A Little Chaos is so perfectly respectable it’s hard to hate. Cute scenes and funny performances jostle with unmotivated villainy and terrible hamming, but who will remember either afterwards?

2/5

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December 11, 2014

Electricity

Model turned actress Agyness Deyn is a commanding presence as an epileptic woman searching for her missing brother in an intimidating London.

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Lily O’Connor (Deyn) works in a low-rent arcade in a North of England seaside town. She manages, just about, with the help of her avuncular cowboy-hat-wearing boss Al (Tom Georgeson) to keep her epilepsy under control. However, her frequent fits and need for a strict regimen of pills keep her socially isolated. When her hated mother dies Lily is visited by her poker professional brother Barry (Paul Anderson), eager to sell the family home and divide the proceeds. But Lily insists that they split the money with their missing brother Mikey (Christian Cooke); her protector against bullies until their forced separation by the authorities. Barry reluctantly gives her details about Mikey’s bitter ex Sylvia (Alice Lowe), and Lily sets off on a risky trip to London to find her beloved Mikey. But her escalating epileptic episodes soon scupper her investigation.

Director Bryn Higgins, best known for TV directing gigs including Garrow’s Law and Black Mirror, makes a fine sophomore feature with his hallucinated gumshoe tale. Higgins doesn’t hold back from inflicting scars on Deyn’s model-pretty face; going further than Scorsese the alleged king of grit would push things with DiCaprio in Gangs of New York. The moment when Lily pitches forward face first onto a dancefloor and breaks her nose with a bloody crack is truly horrifying. Deyn grabs with both hands this defiant character, who chooses to wear short dresses and a nigh fluorescent furry jacket, aware that this draws the eye to her body even as it increases the danger of that body being covered in cuts and bruises from falling during her seizures. Si Bell’s cinematography impressively renders the seizures as first-person spatial dislocations bleeding into electricity.

However, the screenplay by Joe Fisher (The Tichborne Claimant), from Ray Robinson’s novel, can’t hide the fact that there’s more than a touch of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time about Electricity. The mystery of Mikey’s disappearance could probably be solved much quicker if the investigator wasn’t afflicted with a condition that we’re plunged vividly into experiencing at first hand. Even the characters that Lily runs into, like good Samaritan Mel (Lenora Crichlow, Fast Girls), opportunistic Dave (Ben Batt), and spiteful Sylvia (Alice Lowe in surprisingly effective nasty form) have the feel of sketches rather than true characters. Indeed Paul Anderson, doing this movie between seasons of Peaky Blinders, seems to be on some mission to corner the market in one-note dodgy older brothers with thick regional accents. But for a’that these actors pull it off.

Electricity is a good film, and an always interesting one, powered by a strong lead performance; but you root for it to achieve heights greater than what it is capable of reaching.

3/5

September 18, 2014

Noble

Stand-up Deirdre O’Kane tackles a weighty dramatic role as humanitarian Christina Noble in this biopic set in Ireland and Vietnam.

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Noble (O’Kane) arrives in Vietnam in 1989, on a mission from God – more or less. She had a dream about Vietnam and travelled there, quickly discovering that her calling is to make a difference in the lives of the buidoi, the despised street children. Flashbacks (with Gloria Cramer Curtis and Sarah Greene as the younger Noble) draw the parallel between her tenement childhood and institutionalised teenage years, and the plight of the Vietnamese children she takes under her wing. In Vietnam she attempts to cajole Irish and English businessmen Gerry Shaw (Brendan Coyle) and David Somers (Mark Huberman) into financing building works at the neglected orphanage run by Madame Linh (Nhu Quynh Nguyen). But as her experience with abusive husband Mario Pistola (David Mumeni) has taught her, charm can hide callous cruelty – and figures of authority everywhere disdain their buidoi.

Cinematographer Trevor Forrest’s location work in Saigon is fantastic, with familiar imagery of vegetation floating downriver right next to the modernising city of the Western businessman. Noble is also lit up by many great performances. Ruth Negga is winning as Joan, the best friend of Greene’s teenage Christine. Greene, a Talking Movies favourite for her great theatre work, has a meaty cinematic part here and renders Christina a punchy survivor. Sadly the great Karl Shiels is wasted in as cipherish a cameo as his Peaky Blinders role. This is doubly disappointing because Coyle and Huberman offer wonderfully nuanced turns, and Liam Cunningham as Christina’s drunken father is gloriously ambiguous. However, Cunningham’s self-mythologising father who veers between love and rage is a figure out of O’Casey; which draws attention to Christina Casali’s 1950s Dublin design seeming more suited to 1920s Dublin.

That design even drags us into Angela’s Ashes territory, because everything that can go wrong for Christina does go wrong. Even though it’s based on a true story you feel like writer/director Stephen Bradley’s script is hewing to established clichés of the misery memoir. And there are other problems: Christina’s constant recourse to charming singing feels forced, the practicalities of her living rough in the Phoenix Park and later gaining access to Vietnam are left unaddressed, and even her impassioned rant to God in a church recalls The West Wing. Quite worryingly, following Philomena’s unlovely lead, Bradley seems to deploy pre-Vatican II religious garb as a simplistic visual signifier of presumptive evil. Eva Birthistle’s nun is to be treated as a boo-hiss pantomime villain from her first appearance in a wimple; a veritable judas-goat for judicial, political and familial villains.

Noble has a number of committed performances, but the script doesn’t do them justice; it is too on the nose when it could have used more subtlety and humour in depicting Noble’s extraordinary efforts.

2.75/5

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