The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Contender for worst title of this and any other year, this old-fashioned biopic covers both too much and too little of the life of the eponymous cat illustrator who ended up in a mental asylum. In addition, it’s afflicted by a breezy voice-over that you think belongs to one of the participants until all potential suspects have been killed off and you realise that for no apparent reason the narrative is being delivered by the ubiquitous Olivia Colman. The voice over also serves to cover up what director Will Sharpe fails to properly dramatize.

These deficiencies aside it’s a captivating story with some brilliant acting. Both Benedict Cumberpatch as Wain and Claire Foy as his wife Emily avoid the “strained seriousness” that they fell prey to in potential award-winning projects The Power of the Dog (2021) and a Very British Scandal (2021) in favour of more natural performances that bring both characters to charming life.

As well as inventor, all-round illustrator and amateur boxer Wain became the unlikely poster boy for an emerging generation of cat lovers. The movie also touches on some aspects of Victorian society which provide an interesting contrast to today’s more gender-equal times.  For although the man was the undisputed master of the household, the entire financial burden of bringing up a family fell to him. In Wain’s case, this was inherited, his father having died and left him in charge of a widow and five sisters, with expectations of maintaining a certain standard of middle-class life, and none of the siblings having the decency to get married to alleviate the financial strain.

And all very well from a male perspective if you could take advantage of such a position, with females on hand to meet your every need and never challenge your opinions. Not so easy to maintain if you were of an easy-going disposition with poor business skills and scandalized your siblings by marrying someone below your class, in this case an impoverished governess.

The strain of meeting family obligations, especially with a sister only too willing to remind him of his shortcomings, clearly proves too much for Wain, his earning power diminished by  interest in many other non-remunerative activities. Quite where or when electricity entered the equation is never quite made clear though ongoing nightmares about drowning and imagining he can overhear cats speaking certainly jeopardised his mental health.

By pure accident, at a time when dogs were the prime household pets and cats kept only for the purpose of catching mice, Wain’s cat illustrations became a phenomenon. He would have been wealthy had he retained the copyrights. He fell in love with the thankfully more direct governess and for a time they lived happily together. Ever after was not on the cards once she contracted cancer. The film takes on a different hue once she departs the scene. But eventually his obsession with electricity overcomes him and he ends up in a mental asylum.

The movie covers way too long a period, from his emergence as an artist in 1880 to his commitment in the 1920s. Although Emily features large in the trailer, she is gone too soon and the picture struggles to dramatize his later life. That said, that these shy human creatures emerge from their complicated circumstances to fabricate their own cocoon in the countryside with their beloved cat Peter is a touching tale. The madness that afflicts him may well run in the family, not just in their rampant entitlement, but with one sister carried off to the asylum and the older one a tad neurotic.

Cumberpatch is far better here than in The Power of the Dog where I found his character already too set. Both charming and lacking the guile required to maximize his earning potential, but with a manic nature he can no more soothe than his hair, he dominates the screen so well you are almost taken in by his bizarre theories. As good as he is in love, he is devastating as a man adrift on his own demons. Foy is excellent as the governess doomed to a lifetime of loneliness save for chance encounter with Wain.

Andrea Riseborough (Possessor, 2020) also strikes a chord as the neurotic sister determined to keep family and errant brother together. Toby Jones (Dad’s Army, 2016) plays Wain’s benefactor. The sisters include Sharon Rooney (Dumbo, 2019) and Hayley Squires from television series Adult Material (2020). Putting in a surprise turn as H.G. Wells is musician Nick Cave.

Titane (2021) *****

Perhaps the most unforeseen development of this startling picture is that ruthless serial killer Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) develops a caring relationship with an anguished fire chief father (Vincent Lindon) when masquerading as his long-lost son.  Even when it becomes increasingly clear he is harbouring an imposter his naked need for familial intimacy forces continued acceptance. Of course, given Alexia has been impregnated by an automobile, the cinematic wild ride is hardly over. Not just that the father is inclined to pump himself full of steroids to maintain his failing virility and the firemen let off steam by dancing, with no homoerotic overtones, of dancing among themselves.

But tension never slackens due to the off-the-wall off-the-scale opener that saw her enter the realms of the serial killer and the fact that her nipples start leaking oil. A relationship that could have been creepy and/or unbelievable becomes incredibly tender especially when the so-called boy, as teenagers will, causes his father major embarrassment only this time by revealing a more feminine side to his dancing.

While exploring similar territory to David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), this shifts into a completely league. With the exception of what she undertakes to create the transformation into a boy, binding her breasts and breaking her nose, the violence is less about self-harm  than straight-out murder, weapon of choice being a handy hatpin. The most bizarre aspect about the enterprise is not the victims mounting up, but the hilarity the film engenders. When Alexis discovers that she has chosen the wrong locale for one of her killings and with a shrug of frustration has to embark on hunting down an entire household you can’t help but laugh. And the meet-cute with a female model is one of the funniest ever put on the screen.

We never find out what has turned her into a murderer especially as she is not gender-specific in this department. A car accident as a child that resulted in her being fitted with some metal has clearly created some affinity with vehicles and she earns a living as a bikini model who drapes herself over motors at car shows to the delight of leering men. Automobiles are more generally seen as expressions of male eroticism so it’s something of a twist that Alexia takes such love to the ultimate extreme.

Outside of superhero and fantasy movies, it’s rare to find a picture that creates its own world and maintains it in consistent fashion. What we learn about this vicious killer is that she needs care as much as anybody else. As the movie shifts from her selfish enjoyment to filling a gap in the fireman’s life it takes us on quite a different journey to that initially suggested.

Director Julia Ducournau (Raw, 2016) presents an unflinching vision that may be too brutal for most tastes. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes but looks like being ignored by the Oscar fraternity. But the surface is deceptive. If the ending comes as a shocker then you haven’t been paying attention because enough hints are provided as to the potential outcome. And it also means you’ve been ignoring the film’s development which is heading in the direction of togetherness and paternal understanding rather than individual insanity.

In her movie debut Agathe Rousselle is quite astonishing, giving herself up to the needs of a picture that forces tremendous physical demands. It’s a tour de force in what it means to be a committed actor, action driven by character. Oscars have been handed out for a lot less and what makes her characterisation stand out is the transition from woman trapped by a fetish whose only emotional outlet is murder to someone accepting love without question or vicious rejection.

Vincent Lindon (Rodin,2017)  is at the other end of the career scale, with nearly three decades in the business, highlighted by a previous Cannes and Cesar win for The Measure of a Man/ La Loi du Marche (2015). His is a thankless role, at the very least a willing dupe, as much a self-harmer judging from the bruises on his exterior, as likely to be lost and flailing in his jab – a sequence of a forest fire is outstanding – as in his empty emotional life. Hats off also to Lindon, as one of France’s biggest stars, for supporting this project. Without his involvement, funding would have been more difficult.

Titane is a true original with surprising emotional depth.

House of Gucci (2021) ***** – Seen at the Cinema

Beautifully constructed, stylish, compelling narrative about passion, betrayal and the death of a dynasty. Just as The Godfather is not just about the Mafia, this is not just about fashion; rather, both fit into the niche of movies about family. In each, there are principled fathers and both weak and strong sons. While decisions are driven by character, ambition clogs the mind and ultimately it is the clear-sighted who win.

In a beautifully-played love story outsider Patrizia (Lady Gaga) manages to snag Gucci heir Maurizio (Adam Driver), her lowly status driving a wedge between him and ill patriarch Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons), who shares control of the company with his brother Aldo (Al Pacino). Almost a geek poster-boy, Maurizio nonetheless fits easily into her world. But when Aldo draws Maurizio into the family business, it triggers conspiracy and betrayal.

Aldo and Rodolfo are polar opposites, the former willing to dilute the brand in the race for profit, the latter seeing himself as the curator of a more sedate way of doing business. While Rodolfo pines for his dead wife in his palatial Italian sanctuary, Aldo has an eye for the ladies in New York. The weak link in the family chain is Aldo’s “idiot” son Paolo (Jared Leto) who considers himself a fashion genius. But, in reality, they are all weak, seduced by wealth and power, believing themselves untouchable despite wholesale fraud, business folly and self-delusion on a colossal scale.

The quest for power is ostensibly driven by Patrizia, but she proves no match for a flinty-eyed Maurizio. And for his all self-aggrandisement, Maurizio proves no match for the circling predators, his rampant self-indulgence a death wish in a boardroom.

Over-acting could have sent this picture off the rails but everyone is terrific and the soap-opera tag is unfair. In the best Shakespearian style, hubris accounts for tragedy.  Few characters escape humiliation. Paulo may be a figure of fun, but his mortification at the hands of Rodolfo renders him extremely human. Aldo may exalt in his business skill but in the face of betrayal is destroyed. Patrizia receives a massive put-down by Maurizio in front of his high-class friends.

Lady Gaga, who demonstrates the onscreen radiance and incandescence of a latter-day Elizabeth Taylor, is superb as the woman whose prize is snatched away. Adam Driver puts in his best performance yet, so natural, and his scenes with Gaga are electrifying. Al Pacino encompasses a massive range, man in his pomp, loving father, and in the depth of agony at betrayal. Jared Leto is a revelation, and an early Oscar favourite, as the ridiculous and ridiculed son. Jeremy Irons and Jack Huston as the conniving lawyer are excellent

There are so many brilliantly-wrought scenes – seduction on a rowing boat, a rugby match that gets out of hand, a snake-pit of a boardroom, Aldo lavishing attention on his cows, Patrizia indulging a psychic (Salma Hayek), Maurizio leaping around a room for a Vogue photo shoot. A weighty look at the corruption of power but also a fabulously entertaining picture. Better known for visual tropes, here Scott displays his mastery of narrative as we sweep in and out of unbridled egos hell bent on triumph at any cost. And it is the best film about business since Wall St (1987).

When I first watched this, I was inclined to give it a four-star rating but after seeing it a second time on the big screen that appeared niggardly for a work of such awesome majesty. (Now that I’ve seen it a third time, the five-star ranking still stands). Just like American Gangster (2005) and Thelma and Louise (1992), when Scott moves outside his self-appointed sci-fi and historical treasure trove, he does so with effortless style. This just zipped along. I hardly noticed the time at all. Second time around, I just did not want it to finish, I was so immersed. I even found myself laughing at the same jokes and situations.

What a banner year for the 83-year-old British director. The Last Duel could have bookended this piece – wronged woman proved innocent compared to wronged woman found guilty. Given Scott is synonymous more with the historic than anything approaching the contemporary, I thought I would have preferred The Last Duel, but I now consider House of Gucci the greater film.

Ghostbusters Afterlife (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

This Geeks’R’Us (Junior Dept) reboot of a dying franchise is a blast. After the last leaden reinvention, this social-media infused spin brings redemption few brands can dream of. Most kid-centric films rely on a really cute kid. No need here. A brilliant screenplay does the job of bringing the kids to life, and you better believe kids can be that smart.

Drained impoverished Callie (Carrie Coon) dodges eviction by sneaking off to the prairie heartlands with her two offspring to a bleaker version of Bates Motel, owned by her unloved distant grandfather, now deceased. Pretty soon strange things happen, chess pieces move of their own volition, an overhead light points the littlest dork Phoebe (Mackenna Grace) in the right direction. Meanwhile the older nerd Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) uncovers the original Ghostbusters vehicle mouldering away in a collapsed barn. Teacher Grooperson, the kind of guy who lets his charges watch horror videos all day, fills her in on the seismic activity in the region.

It’s not long before all hell lets loose with new types of monsters, something to do with an ancient civilization and a mine filled with diabolical secrets. The action scenes are great fun but what holds it all together, as in the original, are the characters, and in particular the cynical social-media-savvy Podcast (Logan Kim) with a wry comment on every event, the kind of kid who enters what looks like a haunted house with relish.

If Ghostbusters (2016) was a gender reversal, this is a generational reversal, with the adults in general flopping around, Callie on an alcoholic spectrum (she’d be drunker if she could afford it), Grooperson capable of boring a date into insensibility. The kids take charge and not only save the day but save the brand. Podcast looks good for a few sequels to come. The scene where this oddball realises he has made a friend in Phoebe in pure acting gold.

Phoebe is saddled with the exposition, Podcast given the snappy one-liners. We’ve seen a Phoebe before but never a Podcast. Sappy Trevor, in love with waitress Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), brings more zing as the driver of the recharged Ghost-mobile. But this is the kind of film where all the parts fit, where something that seemed like a distraction turns out to be anything but.

Setting it in the middle of nowhere is a masterstroke, with fields and mountains aplenty for ghosts and ghosthunters alike to roam, and a town small enough that even the smallest ghost is going to make a big impact.

Four-time Oscar nominee Jason Reitman (The Front Runner, 2018) brings home a sequel so fresh it feels like a stand-alone. He co-wrote the screenplay with Gil Kenan (Poltergeist, 2015). Amazingly, this is Logan Kim’s movie debut. Much as he steals the show, Mackenna Grace (Malignant, 2021) delivers an excellent portrait of an outsider who grows into herself. Celeste O’Connor (Freaky, 2020) and Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things, 2106-2022) create a believable juvenile not-yet romance. Paul Rudd (Ant-Man and the Wasp, 2018) is better for dropping the cuteness and Carrie Coon (The Nest, 2020), drained by life of all life, in a different movie universe would have had a movie all of her own.  

Not so much afterlife as reborn.

King Richard (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Absorbing sports biopic mixing feel-good and a no-holds-barred approach to the titular subject with a terrific performance from Will Smith. Some commentators complained the film was too long but I was so caught up in it I was surprised when it suddenly came to an end. Beyond recognizing the achievements of the Williams sisters, I had no foreknowledge of the Williams story. The movie follows their early years until the professional debut of Venus (Saniyya Sidney).

Although following a traditional triumph-over-adversity narrative, this is as concerned about the intricate workings of U.S. tennis where the odds were so stacked against black players, saving Arthur Ashe, that club members were taken aback to register the boldness with which Williams Snr, entered their arena. For most of the picture what we see is struggle, Richard Williams (Will Smith) trying to interest coaches in his two daughters. The tennis system is laid bare, the need for funding and then big bucks sponsorship the ultimate goal, the Jennifer Cipriani case quoted as the downside of a system where parents push their children to the limit, setting aside any interest in a normal childhood in a bid to break into the professional game.

Williams is both inspiration and a complete pain in the neck. He comes across as warm and awful at the same time, a whole set of rigid rules getting in the way of the happy family he seeks to establish. His arrogance takes some beating. Having devised a business plan to turn his kids into superstars he finds it difficult to change his tune even when his methods result in zero success. He wants to correct the coaches, on occasion cheat them, but is so determined that Venus and Serena will not become tennis brats that he holds back their leap up the junior tennis circuit in case it prevents their development as people, impacts on their education and denies them a childhood.

The tennis matches are well handled. My ignorance about the Venus sisters’ career path meant that I found the actual tennis riveting. And the fury of children beaten by the upstart Venus tells you all you need to know about the pressures facing prodigies.

Zach Baylin’s debut screenplay is terrific, finding time to fill us in on Williams’ checkered past, professional and romantic failure. Prejudice isn’t limited to white people, he is beaten up by local hoods while a neighbour calls in social services. Charting the family dynamics allows wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis) an occasional turn in the dramatic spotlight. The relationship between Venus and Serena (Demi Singleton) is well nuanced as they move from giggling kids to more mature teenagers, loyalty to each other tested when Venus receives preferential treatment, each with their individual battles, until in specific ways they take charge of aspects of their careers.

Will Smith (Bad Boys for Life, 2020) is a sure thing for an Oscar nomination, but the supporting cast is exceptionally strong. Aunjanue Ellis takes a giant step up from television (Lovecraft Country, 2020) and as the sisters Saniyya Sidney (Fences, 2016) and in her rmovie Demi Singleton – just 15 and 14, respectively – are both delightful and convincing. Jon Bernthal (Those Who Wish Me Dead, 2020) and Tony Goldwyn (The Mechanic, 2011) play real-life coaches, the former frustrated to the point of torture by Williams’ antics.

Reinaldo Marcus Green (Joe Bell, 2020) delivers on several counts: drawing sterling performances from the actors, allowing the screenplay to breathe so the picture doesn’t feel cramped or rush, and setting genuinely exciting tennis matches.

This is already a certified box office flop, in part because of Warner Brothers’ hybrid release, in part I guess don Richard Williams polarising public attitudes, and that’s a shame because it is thoroughly enjoyable and despite misgiving about Williams as a person it is a truly astonishing achievement that against all odds a security guard and his nurse wife should have achieved such success.

The Harder They Fall (2021) * – Seen at the Cinema

Here’s the set-up: a cavalry officer, who has looted a town and slaughtered its population, apparently, is given the task of transporting notorious outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) by train from one jail to another for no particular reason, but a higher-up soldier has hired the remainder of Buck’s gang, led by Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), to attack the train and kill this officer and in return Buck is granted is freedom. The train driver is so dumb that seeing a horseperson astride the track he simply stops the train, obviously not realising what time period he is in, and that in the lawless West, this person is not taking up this position because they missed their stop. When Buck returns to Redwood, a town no bigger than a postage stamp, he discovers it is actually extremely rich, source of wealth not explained either, except the money has been stolen by his associate Wiley Escoe (Deon Cole), leaving Buck to somehow recover the $50,000 that has been lost.

Buck has been on a losing streak, his own gang having been robbed of $25,000 by another gang led by Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), whose family, incidentally, has been slaughtered by Buck who carved a cross in the young Nat’s forehead, making him of course far too instantly recognisable for such a chosen profession, but that doesn’t seem to bother him.  

And that’s before it gets complicated with Love trying to get the drop on Buck, Buck trying to regain his stolen cash, rival gunslingers wanting to demonstrate their quick-draw skills, and rival saloon keepers Trudy and Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz). Fields is another contender for the dumb-and-dumber award after thinking the best way to scout the postage-sized town of Redwood is not just to sneak up in darkness and have a looksee but instead to pretend she’s moseyed into town with the intention of buying up the saloon and not having the sense to work out that Buck is just going to capture her and use her as bait. Oh, and just in case in case you do get lost, geographically, the titles of the various locations are splashed over the screen in ginormous letters.

Not only is the story a mess but it’s awash with songs, some of which appear thematically or historically relevant, but most are not and one of which written by director Jeymes Samuel (making his feature debut) was chosen as the ideal accompaniment for the climax. You might as well have called this picture Anachronism City, which is a shame because all the leading characters were real people. It was maybe a stretch to find a historically-accurate story in which to feature real people, but surely it could not have been so difficult as this.

And don’t get me started on the money – $25,000 / $50,000. Really? Don’t remember Butch Cassidy or Jesse James earning that amount. Where’s all this meant to come from? Did nobody on this picture have any idea how much people earned – and therefore could save – or how much might be in a bank vault? This is pluck-an-idea-out-of-the-air screenwriting.

There’s definitely a good deal of energy on show but mostly of the music video kind. There’s explosive violence of course. And occasionally there is a decent piece of composition. And you can’t fault the acting despite the failings of the script and the tendency towards Tarantino philosophizing. But it’s pretty much a complete misfire, especially if you like your westerns.

Last night in Soho (2021) ** – Seen at the Cinema

Genre mish-mash – sci-fi time travel time (sort of) and horror – just doesn’t come off and Anya Taylor-Joy blows the acting kudos she acquired for the Queen’s Gambit Netflix series. Honestly, we don’t care how people are transported to the past or the future but the journey has to be somehow worthwhile. If there is a such a thing for a fashion student, Eloise (Tomasin McKenzie) is somewhat on the nerdy side and when she ends up in an attic flat near London’s Soho she begins to inhabit the body of wannabe singer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) whose ambitions over half a century previously took her no further than the seediest pockets of seedy crime. Eloise’s visions of recreating 1960s glamour disintegrate and she’s soon slap-bang in the middle of a horror story with leering men bursting out of the walls.

It’s always difficult to keep focus on two storylines, even when they appear to converge, but when they are over half a century apart the constant jumping back and forth is just irritating. The seediness is realistic enough, punter response to learning Sandie’s real or fake name is invariably “that’s a nice name.”  There’s a dodgy boyfriend (Matt Smith), mean girl (Synnove Karlsen) and an odd landlady (Diana Rigg) and that’s about as far as this stretches in terms of characterization. And if your bag is to spot the old-timer, then you will get glimpses of Terence Stamp (The Collector, 1963) and Rita Tushingham (The Knack, 1965) not to mention The Avengers (BBC, 1965-1968) television series reincarnation Rigg.

It’s not scary enough, fashionable enough, seedy enough, or 1960s enough – only a token nod to the period with a soundtrack from the decade and a few scenes with characters in the correct clobber or cars. It might just have worked if it had been the one actress playing both female parts because that at least might have been interesting to observe. Thomasin McKenzie (Old, 2021) is passable as the naïve young thing called upon to mostly look petrified. Anya Taylor-Joy (The New Mutants, 2020) brings nothing to a role that is just a cliché. Point the finger at Edgar Wright, whose Baby Driver (2017) I thought was a sign of him having turned a corner from previous misfires.

The French Dispatch (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

It can only be ironical that Wes Anderson’s wonderfully idiosyncratic, evocative, often hilarious, picture – featuring ex-pats writing for an American magazine in the style of the New Yorker – is located in the French town of Ennui (translation: “boredom”) because it is anything but, a continuous stream of imaginative and inventive scenes, settings and characters. Where other directors make aspects of history their own (Ridley Scott, David Lean) and others lay claim to greatness by inverting genres (Quentin Tarantino), Anderson’s genius lies in creating worlds nobody else could lay claim to. Although this particular film covers just a triptych of tales, you can easily imagine Anderson has another hundred or so stories at his fingertips, all contained in his own unique universe.

You can see why actors queue up to work with him for he allows them to develop highly-individual characters far removed from their denoted screen personas.  Some like Timothy Chamalet, Benicio del Toro, Jeffrey Wright and Lea Seydoux take advantage of this freedom to conjure deliciously realised human beings, while others such as Owen Wilson and Tilda Swinton let the opportunity slip or appear  in the picture so briefly (Elisabeth Moss, Henry Winkler, Bob Balaban) as to make little impact. Even headliner Bill Murray, who bookends the show, is given to more inventiveness than usual, breaking up his usual deadpan  delivery to make an occasional emphatic point.

While mostly this zips along, when Anderson occasionally stops for breath the effect is electric, for example a static camera taking in the back of a tenement through which we see by virtue of various windows a waitperson’s exhausted ascent. Mostly, the tales follow their own internal logic, but when forced into a genre corner, such as a shoot-out, Anderson resorts to pure zest. And while the narrative is mostly driven by voice-over, this takes on different aspects, from a loquacious raconteur (Jeffrey Wright) to a droning lecturer (Tilda Swinton).

Clearly planning to keep one step ahead of critics who claim his movies run out of steam, Anderson heads off that issue by filming three short unconnected stories. Del Toro and Seydoux head up the best item which sees a psychotic murderer embark on an artistic career that hooks art dealer (Adrien Brody).  Those who expect Anderson to spring surprises might still be taken aback when it transpires that the nude model (Seydoux) of the prisoner (Del Toro) is in fact his gaoler. Having opened a box of twists, Anderson continues in this wild vein. Narrators attempting to impose a semblance of normality generally find themselves at odds with their subject matter. In the second tale, as off-beat a student revolutionary as you could find, Chamalet breathes as much life into the character as he appeared stultified in trying to create a real person in the misfiring Dune (2021). Crime is not usually best served best by asides and droll self-importance but Wright, in the final story, manages to tie up in knots what should a taut kidnapping tale.   

If you come looking for star turns by Bill Murray and Oscar-winner Frances McDormand, you will be sorely disappointed but if you willing to settle for an energetic, fresh, nostalgic take on an imaginary France, with plenty laugh out loud moments, you should come away well satisfied. Of course whether the French will feel as insulted as by television show Emily in Paris remains to be seen but I’m sure the Hungarians did not take The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) too literally.

I notice that this received a platform release in the States and broke per-cinema box office records in the process and I wonder what might have been the fate of The Last Duel (2021), regardless of its budget, had it opted for a similar launch approach.

The Last Duel (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

A surprisingly contemporary core, bolstered by a quartet of excellent performances, drives Ridley Scott’s bold Rashomon-style historical tale. Despite its length it’s less of a historical epic in the style of Gladiator (1999) and more of an intimate and intricate exploration of power – and its lack. Each of the main characters, including and especially the women, while exerting some kind of power nonetheless are in thrall to a superior being whose word is absolute law. Challenging that authority could result in instant death. It’s a slow-burn for sure but exerts a tenacious grip as the story unfolds from three points-of-view to a double climax, both riveting for different reasons.   

And it’s far from typical Ridley Scott except in attention to historical detail. The battle scenes are almost perfunctory – in fact few end in victory – and except to demonstrate bravery do not follow the usual heroic template. There’s none of the trademark Scott cinematic sweep although the duel itself is exceptional.

Scarred to the point of facial disfigurement Damon has never played a character like this before.

In 14th century France Marguerite (Jodie Comer), wife of Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), accuses Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) of rape, the accusation finally settled by duel to the death. All three characters are given the chance to give their version of the story and this is where it becomes fascinating as shades of personality are filled in.

At the outset Jean comes across as brave, impulsive, marrying Marguerite to save her honour (her father is a traitor), and when wronged willing to challenge authority. But as other perspectives unfold he is revealed as blustering, ambitious, more interested in his wife’s sizeable dowry than her honour, over-proud, and a poor manager of his estate. While brave, educated and charming Le Gris turns out to be a greedy, conniving bed-hopper. Initially presented as a grateful wife and little more than an adornment Marguerite is revealed as the most courageous of all, an able estate manager, challenging the King, accepting the prospect of death rather than, as was apparently the custom of the times, allowing the rape to go unremarked.

Comer is a revelation and you could argue she steals the picture from her more experienced colleagues. There is an astonishing scene where she realises that, her husband’s bravery notwithstanding, he has condemned her to a terrible death should he lose the duel.

The sexual mores of the era are examined in depth, the worst examples of male prerogative sometimes just touched upon in passing, for example, since a wife is her husband’s property, in law he is the one besmirched not her. In taking sexual power as his central theme rather than the triumphs and woes of the men, Scott takes a huge risk in alienating a following expecting more action and cinematic bravura, but the bold story-telling pays off and although starting with Alien (1979) the director has a record of strong female characters this has more in common with Thelma and Louise (1991) where wronged women are backed up into a cul de sac.

Rejecting the heroism route allows Scott to present far more rounded characters. None of the four principals conforms to type. Damon is neither the common man nor the action hero, but a boor. Driver is neither charming seducer nor outright villain but somewhere in between, living on his wits. Comer cannot rely on female machismo or cleverness but must remain stout in the face of an onslaught of humiliation. And mention must be made of Ben Affleck as Pierre d’Alencon, employer of Le Gris and master of Carrouges, who is cocky, immoral, amoral, greedy, shifty and cunning. Other standout performances feature Alex Lawther (The Imitation Game, 2014) as a gleeful king and Harriet Walter (Atonement, 2007) as a loathsome and cruel mother-in-law. I just hope Oscar voters recognise at least some of these perfomances.

A blond and goateed Affleck as you have never seen him before, cockiness running riot, with a mean streak a mile wide, the epitome of Middle Ages entitlement.

It’s worth paying attention to the screenplay by Nicole Holofcener (Oscar-nominated for Can You Ever Forgive Me, 2018) and Damon and Affleck (their first joint effort since Good Will Hunting, 1997) and note how the language the characters employ changes according to the perspective. Words that we imagine in one section that appear to be spoken by one character in another section are delivered by someone else entirely.

I am a huge fan of Ridley Scott and while I came looking for adventure in the style of Gladiator (2000) or his other historical masterpiece Kingdom of Heaven (2005) I came away more than satisfied in the way he altered his style to suit the story almost in the same manner as he had done with American Gangster (2007), another picture about power.

You will probably be aware by now that this has been a colossal box office bomb and although the film has enormous merit you can see why audiences looked the other way. Oddly enough, I think it will acquire a bigger audience through small-screen streaming since it is really a drama.  I would still recommend catching it at the cinema but there’s fair chance it will not last for its full 45-day window.

I tend to judge directors not by critical acclaim but by a more rudimentary measure – how often I watch their pictures. I have seen Alien, Blade Runner (1982), Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, American Gangster, the Martian (2015)  and even the flawed Prometheus (2012) and Black Hawk Down (2001) more than half a dozen times each – often three or four times at the cinema – and I have a notion that The Last Duel will comfortably fit into this elite.

Annette (2021) * – Seen at the Cinema

Contender for the weirdest film of the year and a truly bonkers misfire, this is a musical only in the sense that much of it is sung in the vein of Tommy (1975) but completely lacking in the kind of memorable songs that would make it qualify for the genre. It is the most over-ripe of conceits, actors who can’t sing, a story that doesn’t fly, characters whose characteristics are endlessly laboured, little development, and a director who clearly believes audiences will swallow anything.

World-famous soprano Ann (Marion Cotillard) marries agent provocateur stand-up comic Henry (Adam Driver). Her stage act consists of dying and bowing, his of heckling his audience. The relationship soon hits the rocks but not before she has given birth to Annette. This is where it becomes even more tricky because Annette more closely resembles an offspring of Chucky, the horror doll, rather than, as was clearly intended, Pinocchio. The story takes an odd turn, which I won’t reveal, but it fails to redeem the project.

While Driver (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, 2019) is quite convincing as the bonkers comedian – especially in one skit where he has the audience believing he has killed his wife – and it is virtually impossible for Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, 2007) to be bad in anything, the film needs more than repetitive scenes of her singing and him upbraiding the audience. Cotillard actually has a reasonable voice – and has cut a few albums – but what she is given to sing here makes a mockery of her talents.

With names such as director Leos Carax (Holy Motors, 2012) and screenwriters/ composers Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks fame this was clearly always going to err on the side of cult. It might have worked if the director could have seen his way to a bit of brevity. At 90 minutes or so it might have been an interesting trifle. At 140 minutes, it outstayed it welcome.

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