Men (2022) ** – Seen at the Cinema

Bizarre movie seeks cult audience! You might as well have stuck that on the poster. When I tell you the film climaxes like a Monty Python sketch with four successive men giving birth – from a variety of orifices – the first three to emerge different versions of the same character, the last the dead husband James (Paapa Essiedu) of Harper (Jessie Buckley). And that men also appear fully naked, in the form of some kind of vegetation, and can survive despite having an arm spliced from elbow to fingers. And that James desperately wants her to feel guilty about his suicide, triggered by her demanding a divorce.

Of course, all this could be taking place in her tormented mind except that she steadfastly refuses to admit to torment over the suicide even though she does scream her head off in church. If any of this is remotely realistic it points to someone with a severe downer on men, since there is not a single likeable one in sight. Men, in fact, are just four-letter words (choose your own) whose sole purpose is to accuse women of not loving them enough. And women – cue symbolism – are all born of Eve and inclined to eat a forbidden apple.

None of this would be so bad if in attempting a psychological thriller and/or horror film (I am assuming horror because of the births and arms sliced in two) there was actually a shock or two or even a general sense of creepiness. On the plus side, should this ever achieve cult status – “makes Titane look like Paddington” (1 or 2, you choose) – then I am sure director Alex Garland will only be too happy to turn up for a tenth anniversary Q&A and explain his intentions and/or symbolism and if he’s very lucky find an audience composed of students who have written a thesis on the film.

So the story – or did you think there wasn’t one – sees Harper repair to a village in the country to a fantastic country house with all the trimmings including an Aga and a baby grand for two weeks holiday to recover from the suicide, her mind still so muddled that she’s not thought to change her married name. It’s the kind of village where there appears a considerable amount of inbreeding. The letting agent (Rory Kinnear) looks suspiciously like the long-haired vicar (Rory Kinnear) and the rude schoolboy (Rory Kinnear) and the policeman (Rory Kinnear) and the bollocks-naked stalker (Rory Kinnear).

Harper gets lost in the unfamiliar countryside and happens across a tunnel where the echo effects could have been created by Robert Fripp and is then chased by a man (Rory Kinnear anyone?) and then catches sight of the naked man who later appears in her garden looking like an rewilded exhibit from the Chelsea Flower Show. The various versions of the man appear at different points and even when the letting agent appears good (and brave) actually he is just as bad.

I felt sorry for the Oscar-nominated Jessie Buckley (The Lost Daughter, 2021) for having to put up with this script. I also felt sorry for Rory Kinnear (No Time to Die, 2021) with a movie career so far consisting of supporting roles who must have been convinced that the chance to channel his inner Alec Guinness/Peter Sellers and play multiple characters would have been his breakthrough.

I did not in the slightest feel any sympathy towards Alex Garland (Ex Machina, 2014) for dreaming up this pile of tosh. This is one those films that strides the critic/moviegoer divide. Around 70 per cent of critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave it a positive review but moviegoers disagreed and, as surveyed by Cinemascore, gave it a D score (on a rank from A to F).

The Courier (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

A brilliant example of how to control your material, this low-budget old school espionage picture, virtually a two-hander, based on a true story and set against the 1960s cold War paranoia, delivers thrills against the background of a murky business. Smarmy businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is inveigled into picking up rolls of film from Russian intelligence office Oleg (Merab Ninidze), giving away his country’s secrets in a bid to prevent nuclear war.

An anti-James Bond scenario sees Wynn employing little bits of tradecraft and spending almost every minute fearing capture while he develops a friendship with his foreign counterpart. On the domestic front, the pressure tells on Wynn, already a nervy character and relying too much on alcohol to sustain his own possibly failing business. Wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) suspects he is engaging in another extra marital affair. Doting father Oleg wilts under the burden of betrayal, hoping that his assistance in the Western cause will lead to a successful defection, aware of the impact on his family if caught.

In the background Wynne’s ruthless handlers, Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) representing MI6 and CIA operative Emily (Rachel Brosnahan), are like circling sharks. While tense enough, this is all straightforward Tinker, Tailor… territory but in the second act the stakes suddenly rise and the movie shoots into quite different, far more realistic territory, that takes its toll on both protagonists.

It’s a very lean film and in concentrating on character rather than extraneous thrills in the manner of other recent offerings like Stillwater, The Night House or Censor, comes up triumphant in terms of plot. And without attempting to impose background through artistry as with Censor perfectly captures the mood of the times. The background characters are all well developed but the unexpected friendship that develops between the two spies and leads to the climax is exceptionally well done.

Oscar nominated Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game, 2014) drops all his mannerisms to bring alive a fascinating character who has, in any case, in his business life, had to develop an alien persona.  Merab Ninidze (Jupiter’s Moon, 2017) is every bit his equal, living a lie, trying to keep one step ahead of his own suspicious compatriots. Rachel Brosnahan (Change in the Air, 2018) is excellent as the one backroom character with an ounce of empathy and a pithy line in dealing with stuffy Brits and Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose, 2018), adding another decent accent to her collection, adds some pathos.

Director Dominic Cooke (On Chesil Beach, 2017) does an excellent job of marshalling his material and his concentration on character pays off in spades. Versatility could find no better expression than through writer Tom O’Connor who went down a completely different route in his previous movie The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017).

I do have one slight niggle. When the British were outraged at Burgess, Philby and MacLean and the Americans Klaus Fuchs et al, the arguments given by these various traitors was that, in giving away state secrets, they were merely realigning the nuclear status quo. These characters were all roundly vilified, but not Oleg here. And although the film concentrates on a few exchanges between Oleg and his courier, in reality more than 5,000 military secrets went from Russia to Britain in this fashion.

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