Talking Movies

January 28, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Director Matthew Vaughn eschews the current gritty James Bond formula for an R-rated absurdist spy fantasy from Mark Millar’s comic-book.

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Kingsman begins as it means to go on; tongue firmly-in-cheek; as terrible CGI explosions rock a Middle Eastern fortress, only for the falling stones to form into the title credits. Our hero Galahad (Colin Firth) is on a mission that goes fatally wrong, leading him to pay his respects to the widowed Michelle (Samantha Womack), and give a promise of aid, if ever needed, to her infant son Gary. Nearly two decades later a Kingsmen rescue of kidnapped climate change expert Professor Arnold (a cameo too good to spoil here) goes awry. A replacement Lancelot must be recruited, and all the Kingsmen must put forward a candidate. At this precise moment Gary, now known as Eggsy (Taron Egerton), gets into deep trouble with his criminal stepfather Dean (Geoff Bell), and calls in Galahad’s favour. Galahad proposes Gary as the new Lancelot, and so begins a dangerous mentoring in privatised espionage…

Kingsman is a blast. There’s a certain X-Men: First Class vibe to the Lancelot competition presided over by Merlin (Mark Strong) at a country house, with nice class warfare between chav Eggsy and upper-crust Digby (Nicholas Banks) and Charlie (Edward Holcroft). Egerton is endearing as someone hiding his potential because of his circumstances, and Sophie Cookson as sympathetic toff Roxy is a winning foil. Less sympathetic is the leader of the Kingsmen, Arthur (Michael Caine). There’s an odd meta-textual dance here between Egerton having played toff in Testament of Youth and cockney Caine’s enthronement as a cinematic elder. But that’s as nothing compared to the meta-madness when Galahad discusses old Bond films with lisping tech billionaire Valentine (Samuel L Jackson). Firth is effectively playing The Avengers’ Mr Steed, and loving it, while Jackson seems to be nodding to his Unbreakable role as a squeamish super-villain, with a surprisingly interesting motivation, who delegates murder to lethal blade-runner henchwoman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella).

Vaughn’s use of music deserves special mention. Eggsy’s car-thieving exploits are rousingly accompanied by Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Bonkers’, a surrealist gore-fest is played out to the strains of Elgar (in what feels oddly like a nod to Dr Strangelove), and then there’s ‘Freebird’… Vaughn tops Cameron Crowe’s demented use of that song in Elizabethtown, and, given that Crowe had a band rocking out on the guitar solo and determinedly ignoring the giant flaming bird flying past, that’s saying something. A vicious sermon by the great Corey Johnson is interrupted by utter carnage as Galahad gets embroiled in a fight to the death with the entire congregation. If The Matrix lobby scene used a high concept to banish guilt over massacres by heroes this pushes the envelope even further. Cinematographer George Richmond and Vaughn close up on the action and deploy a grainier look to hide cheats in their sustained bloodthirsty mayhem. And what mayhem it is – a choreographed wonder of continual stabbing, shooting, garrotting, strangling, bludgeoning that produces jaw-dropped, impressed disbelief.

There’re quibbles to be had, notably the rather tasteless use of Hanna Alstrom’s Swedish princess and the sudden ending, but Kingsman’s bloody good fun.

4/5

January 15, 2015

Testament of Youth

Alicia Vikander stars as Vera Brittain in a harrowing adaptation of her celebrated memoir of love and death in WWI.

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In the pre-war idyll we meet Vera (Vikander) swimming with her beloved brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and her diffident suitor Victor Richardson (Colin Morgan). She is furious when she discovers Edward has been distracting her to allow the installation of a piano, a present from their father (Dominic West) designed to take her mind off going to Oxford. But Vera is determined to sit the entrance exam, and the support of Edward and Edward’s school-friend Roland (Kit Harington) forces Mt Brittain to allow her try. She makes an unfavourable impression on Miss Lorimer (Miranda Richardson), the don running Somerville, but wins a place. Her joy is short-lived. Roland, driven by duty, volunteers as an officer; and Edward follows suit. Soon Vera herself volunteers, as a nurse; and the horrors she witnesses only increase her need to get nearer the front.

Initially this film of Testament of Youth feels in the shadow of Parade’s End, owing to the superficial resemblance of a suffragette falling for a man defined by his sense of duty who volunteers for the trenches as soon as war is declared. And the domestic sphere is of great interest: Vera throws over Victor for the more antagonistic Roland, who is the son of a famous writer Mrs Leighton (Anna Chancellor), but must still settle for the conservative chaperoning of their walking-outs by Aunt Belle (Joanna Scanlan). Vikander is nicely steely and abrasive as Vera, a woman given to speaking her mind and expecting people to listen. Harington is a good foil as the man she initially misjudges, but who has unexpected depths. Hayley Atwell’s cameo as a nurse is wonderful, the only true comic note in the film.

Director James Kent steps up from the likes of The Thirteenth Tale for the BBC for a handsomely mounted period drama that becomes almost unendurably sad by the end. This is partly because of his very clever casting which makes you feel the trauma of war’s losses. Along with Journey’s End, Goodbye to All That, and All Quiet on the Western Front, Testament of Youth was one of the artistic responses to the war that shaped perception of the conflict. Screenwriter Juliette Towhidi, previously best known for adapting Cecilia Ahern’s Love, Rosie, shows a sure hand in balancing Vera’s growing despair about the war with the Anglican mysticism of Edward’s friend Geoffrey Thurlow (Jonathan Bailey) towards the slaughter. Kent and Towhidi fashion a heartbreaking visual metaphor by a montage of silent shots of familiar places with the characters now absent…

Testament of Youth is an impressive film largely because of the mounting emotional effect of the successive disappearance of everyone Vera loves. By the end she really is, as someone suggests, surrounded by ghosts.

3.5/5

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