Black Widow (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Like Skyfall, that rarity, an action film with a solid emotional core. Take away the action and you would still have an absorbing story of a loss, family tension, bickering siblings and an ego-driven pompous father. The action brings family together, initially the two girls, Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Yelena (Florence Pugh) rescuing papa Alexei (David Horsburgh) from a Russian maximum-security prison then with the addition of brainy mum Melina (Rachel Weisz) tackling criminal mastermind Dreykov (Ray Winstone) in an exceptionally clever secret location.

If you’ve come looking for simple action, this is the wrong movie for you. Family complication, on a par perhaps with the criminal clan of The Godfather and imbued with the darker hues of Christopher Nolan’s Batman, adds far more depth than normal for a superhero picture. And even for Dreykov, the issue is family. He is the repairer-in-chief, on the one hand putting back together as well as he can his own familial loss, and on the other giving a home for countless orphans worldwide, albeit to suit his own plans.

Natasha has run the gamut of raw emotion. Orphaned twice, forcibly ejected from the one place she called home, i.e. The Avengers family, her feelings about being reunited with  adoptive Romanoff parents are noticeably negative.  Yelena is more willing to embrace the errant parents. Never mind that this is the one superhero picture in The Avengers catalogue where the superhero, as fit and agile as Natasha is, has no demonstrable superhero powers. And even those powers are mocked by Yelena who makes fun of the pose we have so often seen Natasha adopt. Nearly stealing the show is the self-pitying Alexei, the over-ripe overweight over-emotional father who would always be embarrassing you, inflated with his own self-importance, as bereft now as his daughters, having been stripped of his own superhero status as the Red Guardian. Whenever any of his family are in danger you can be sure his ego will get in the way.

The story is simple enough. By accident, Yelena, a member of the Dreykov army of female orphans, accidentally discovers she is enslaved, teams up, but only after a knock-down scrap Jason Bourne would have been proud of, with on-the-run Natasha, and eventually her parents. The action is terrific, especially the jailbreak, which has time to steal the central riff from Force Majeure (2014) just to ramp up the tension. And there are plenty surprises along the way, especially apt reward for Natasha’s ruthlessness as a do-gooder.

This is an entire family up for redemption, forced to confront their pasts, and for once it is not action that provides the solution. In some respects it is the family that clings together that stays together. The Avengers aspect is mostly redundant here, so what’s left is a more solid action-fueled thriller with superb characters, each, including villain, with their own emotional story arc. And it’s not always dark either, the family scenario studded with comedy nuggets.   

Visually stunning, as you might expect, this is a welcome big-budget showcase for Cate Shortland (Berlin Syndrome, 2017) who brings emotional intelligence to bear on a genre in which that is often in short supply. Eric Pearson (Godzilla vs Kong, 2021) was the wordsmith.

Johansson (Marriage Story, 2019) has rarely been better and it says a lot for the performance of Florence Pugh (Little Women, 2019) that in their scenes together she is rarely overshadowed. Hopefully, this is the breakout picture for David Harbour (No Sudden Move, 2021), and maybe even the MCU team might recognize the comedic opportunities in a stand-alone based on his character, so effortlessly has it been constructed. And it’s a welcome return for Rachel Weisz, absent from the big screen since The Favourite (2018).  William Hurt (Avengers: Endgame, 2019) makes an expected appearance and Olga Kurylenko (The Courier, 2019) a surprise one and The Handmaid’s Tale’s O-T Fagbenie provides an interesting cameo.

This is definitely not going to work as well on the small-screen so if you’ve got the chance to see it in the cinema – where I saw it on my weekly Monday night outing – grab it while you can.

The Red Tent (1969) ***

If you’re unfamiliar with the abortive Italian airship expedition to the North Pole led by General Umberto Nobilo (Peter Finch) in 1928, you’ll find this an absorbing tale. If you are familiar then you will probably appreciate the film-makers’ attempts, via an unusual framing device, to carry out a post-mortem and to apportion blame for the disaster. If you know your history you’ll also be aware both poles had already been conquered, American Robert Peary first to the North Pole in 1909, Norwegian Roald Amundsen (Sean Connery) claiming South Pole bragging rights two years later. So you’re also probably wondering what was the point nearly two decades later of the Nobilo operation?

But the sled-led efforts of Peary and Amundsen were feats of endurance i.e. man vs.  nature. This was science vs. nature. The dirigible was the apex of aviation advancement and nations still battled for exploration glory. So to travel in some comfort and fly over the North Pole in a few days would be a demonstration of scientific supremacy. Conquest of one of the most inhospitable places on earth was almost a PR exercise. With no intention of landing it was also a glorified tourist trip.

Connery and Cardinale lock horns over tea.

However, the science was flawed. Nobody had counted on the build-up of ice. The airship crashed and since this was a joyride nobody was equipped to walk their way out. Just surviving would be difficult enough. Loss of radio transmission (science) indicated a problem to those waiting back at the base so rescue airplanes were deployed. But without a location to pinpoint, the searchers had about two million square kilometers cover. Luckily, a brilliant scientific deduction by expedition member Finn Malmgreen (Eduard Martsevich) saves the day and a ham radio user (amateur science) picks up the location. Game on!

Except airplanes are too easily thwarted by blizzards, fog and the inhospitable. Home base, set up simply to welcome home a successful jaunt, is not capable of organizing a proper rescue. A Russian ice-breaker joins the rescue attempt. Taking greater risks is aviator Einar Lundborg (Hardy Kruger), fired up by the promise of sex with desperate nurse Valeria (Claudia Cardinale), who happens to be Malmgreen’s girlfriend, and a bounty from Nobilo’s insurers. The redoubtable Valeria does not have to sell her body to persuade the more highly-principled Amundsen to join the rescue effort.

So it’s gripping clock-ticking-down stuff, action shown in considerable detail, almost over-populated in one sense as director Mikhail Kalatozov (The Cranes Are Flying, 1957) covers multiple storylines, the various disjointed rescue efforts, the survivors weakening by the day, imperiled by marauding polar bears and the ice cracking up beneath their feet.

In the main it’s a true story, Valeria the only fictional element, inserted for dramatic purpose, to give the audience someone to emotionally root for back on land and for her character to guide us in almost contemporary fashion through the ghoulish carnival onshore as thousands gather to witness first-hand news of disaster.

What’s patently untrue is the framing device, given that it shows the still-living Nobilo summoning up the ghosts of others involved in the event for a post-mortem, in which his guilt drives him into the position of sacrificial lamb. Although on first encounter it appears a bizarre idea, that, too, soon achieves dramatic purpose. Clearly there was intense discussion at the time and in the immediate aftermath by those who survived the disaster and there must have been high-level talks behind closed doors that usually excluded the main characters of the kind that was played out in a host of historical pictures made during the decade. Lawrence of Arabia (1963) and Khartoum (1965) had many such set-pieces where reputations were shredded.

This approach permits opportunity for all the principals to come together for confrontational purposes in the one room. Not all discussion follows the expected path and there is an interesting argument between Nobilo and Amundsen about leadership. From an audience perspective, it is, of course, quite satisfying to see Sean Connery facing off against Peter Finch with Hardy Kruger and Claudia Cardinale embroiled in the debate.

All eyes on Claudia Cardinale in the Japanese poster.

There is the bonus of fabulous cinematography of the majestic Arctic, the icy waste and breaking up of ice floes and collapsing icebergs never before captured in such widescreen glory. Further pluses are in the performances, especially Connery as an aged Amundsen, Finch as the glorious pioneer bewildered the sudden turn of events and Cardinale as a woman willing to go to any lengths to save her lover. Ennio Morricone provided the score.

However, you are best going into this to be aware that while Finch has a goodly amount of time onscreen, Connery and Cardinale (the ostensible stars judging by the credits) are not seen so frequently. That said, the movie happily falls into the survival sub-genre. The DVD version I saw was just a shade over two hours – cut by about 30 minutes from original release – but reportedly the longer version adds little more than some extra angst.