Talking Movies

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.

NOBLE

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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October 31, 2013

Philomena

Steve Coogan co-writes, produces and stars opposite Judi Dench in a tale of investigative journalism based on a true story.

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Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) is a Labour spin-doctor shafted when his well intentioned but unfortunately phrased email becomes the object of media hysteria. Moping around, pitching a book on Russian history, the former journalist is approached at a party by waitress Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin). Jane’s Irish mother Philomena (Judi Dench) has just disclosed she had another child, a son; who was forcibly given up for adoption decades before while in a Magdalene laundry. Initially disinterested, Sixsmith pitches the story to hard-bitten magazine editor Sally (Michelle Fairley), and, commissioned, meets with Philomena. The unlikely duo set off on a road trip, first to the convent in Roscrea where Cathy Belton’s nun informs them all paperwork was lost in a fire, and that Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford) is too ill to help them, and eventually to America to find lost child Anthony.

Coogan’s script has been acclaimed, but the Oxbridge educated Sixsmith’s consistent patronising of the ‘Daily Mail and romance novel reading’ retired nurse Philomena is actually rather uncomfortable viewing. His opening quip on leaving a carol service early, “I don’t believe in God, and I think He can tell”, recalls Woody Allen’s “To you I’m an atheist, to God I’m the loyal opposition”, but this script lacks the philosophical engagement of Allen’s most thoughtful works. It is instead largely devoted to bashing the Catholic Church without much reflection. Stephen Frears’ anonymous direction seems to display the effect of four centuries of Anti-Catholic propaganda in England as the camera almost regards pre-Vatican II clerical garb as a cinematic shorthand for evil akin to SS uniforms when depicting the laundry; which the girls could leave at any time if their families wished it.

Hillsborough shows that cover-ups are endemic to institutions, secular as much as religious, which protect their prestige at the expense of innocent victims. Mitt Romney, in his capacity as a LDS Church Bishop, was trying to persuade single mothers to give up their children for adoption well into the 1980s. But acknowledging those truths make Catholicism less exceptional… The American sequence is startling for the dramatic nuances forsaken. Philomena’s son did have a better life there than she could have given him, but he was made to feel shame for his ‘sin’ in America as much as his mother was for hers in Ireland, because of the Evangelical Protestantism that swept Reagan and the Bushes to political power. When the film returns to Roscrea, it seems relieved such knotty ambiguities can be replaced by Catholic-bashing.

Philomena excoriates people for applying their shibboleths without empathy, yet, by condemning people for not applying current shibboleths in the past, itself disdains attempting to understand why those people acted as they did – comprehension is not forgiveness, but empathy.

2/5

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