Tag Archives: underrated british actors

Kill List (2011)

9 Feb

Ben Wheatley first came to the public’s attention with online videos like ‘Cunning Stunt’, which went viral in short order. Wheatley quickly progressed to TV, directing ‘Modern Toss’, ‘The Wrong Door’ and the fifth series of ‘Ideal’. In between all this Wheatley also had time to direct his first feature, ‘Down Terrace’ (2009), a slow-burning thriller that is equal parts ‘Sexy Beast’ (2000) and ‘The Royle Family’, or a Shane Meadows crime saga. ‘Kill List’ takes a similar tack to ‘Down Terrace’, framing the action in a domestic setting, exploring themes of masculine identity, of battle-hardened men struggling to come to terms with the quotidian world.

‘Kill List’ tells the story of Jay (Neill Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley), two soldiers-turned-mercenaries who are still reeling from a botched job eight months prior. Jay and Gal are offered a new assignment by a shady group, requiring them to dispose of a series of seemingly unconnected targets. The realities of the job test the limits of Jay and Gal’s friendship as they and their loved ones are plunged into a morass of corruption and uncertainty.

There is a sombre efficiency to the – no pun intended – execution of ‘Kill List’ that perfectly fits its subject matter, an absence of irony that harks back to a time when crime films strove to deliver something more than empty thrills and knowing homage. There is a refreshing lack of flashy set pieces designed to outline the director’s technical prowess, occurring seemingly independent of the overall narrative and removing one from reality; the violence in ‘Kill List’ is integral to story and character progression and exists to underline the ugliness of taking a life.

Because ‘Kill List’ is violent. Very violent. Almost unbearably violent at times. But the overall effect, much like Alan Clarke’s ‘Elephant’ (1989), is to inure the viewer to what they see and make the actions of Jay and Gal seem run-of-the-mill, enabling us to see it with the same distance as they do. It is a bold approach; playing with our expectations and forcing us to examine our responses when the dust settles. There is also some elemental horror of early ‘70s vintage that delivers genuine tension and peril, a rare commodity in the Torture Porn epoch.

Smiley, best known as the mercurial bike courier Tyres in the cult ‘90s sitcom ‘Spaced, proves himself to be an accomplished dramatic actor; bringing ease, assurance and economy to his interplay with Maskell, who is a revelation as a man succumbing to his bestial impulses, for whom reality is grey and uninspiring after all he has seen and done. The film’s success hinges on the lingering tension between Jay and Gal, an enduring bond that is both sustained and undermined by their knowledge of each other, and it is brilliantly played out.

‘Kill List’ is at turns bleak, nihilistic and elegiac, examining with grisly clarity what soldiers do when they are rendered ‘extraneous’, when there are no more honourable battles left to fight and they are left to the harsh realities of the market. Wheatley succeeds in deconstructing two genres without recourse to the usual tropes, creating the most compelling British thriller for some time. There really is no telling where Wheatley will go next.


This is significant.


Marat/Sade (1967)

10 Nov

The recent RSC production of the Peter Weiss play ‘The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis De Sade’ – to give it its full, unwieldy title – has caused considerable controversy and reignited the endless debate about the limits of art. Antony Neilson’s revival of the infamous ‘play within a play’ met with an average of thirty walkouts per night, with one disgruntled patron describing it as ‘utter filth and depravity’; critics haven’t been much kinder.

Peter Brook’s adaptation of the original 1963 production is amongst the better known celluloid evocations of Sade’s work: the others being ‘Quills’ (2000), a bawdy romp with literary pretensions that portrays Sade as a lovable libertine in the order of a louche seventies rock star; and the altogether nastier ‘Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom’ (1975), which in its total lack of compassion can be said to embody Sade’s worldview with the greatest insight.

The director of the Charenton asylum, Coulmier (Clifford Rose), decides to stage a play written by its most famous occupant, the Marquis De Sade (Patrick Magee), with the other patients playing the roles for the enjoyment of Coulmier’s bourgeois friends and family. The play tells the story of Jean-Paul Marat (Ian Richardson), a polemicist during the French Revolution who met his end at the hands of Charlotte Corday (Glenda Jackson). Marat was a contemporary of Sade’s, a firebrand with whom he had impassioned debates about the validity of his revolutionary actions.

As the play progresses, Coulmier, accompanied by his wife and daughter (Brenda Kempner and Ruth Baker), intervenes in proceedings when contentious lines that were intended to be excised from the script are uttered by its wayward players. The play details Sade and Marat’s conflicting opinions on the tumultuous events gripping the country: Sade averring that Man is by nature a destroyer, overwhelmed in the face of nature’s indifference, while Marat counters that the collective will can sooth our inner conflict, seeing hope in fraternity, equality and liberty.

No doubt keen to distinguish itself from its theatrical progenitor, ‘Marat/Sade’ is a thoroughly cinematic experience, standing in stark contrast to so many other stage-to-screen transfers. Picking up where he left off with his previous film adaptation, ‘Lord of the Flies’ (1963), Brook packs the screen with detail; playing with focus and composition to great effect, utilizing the far reaches of the frame, characters occupying the fore, mid and background and addressing the camera. It all combines to create a sense of dynamism and spontaneity within a sparse single location, though clearly every move was planned to the smallest detail and executed with the utmost precision.

The production design and art direction are expertly handled by Sally Jacobs and Ted Marshall, fashioning a drab palette of black, grey and off-white, consciously contrasted by the Culmiers’ pristine robes and Charlotte’s virginal attire; while David Watkin’s cinematography uses the queasy sunlight streaming in through the windows to create some startling interplay of light and shade. The sound design is equally effective, bringing unsettling noises to the fore and isolating voices from the often cacophonous songs, backed by a heady blend of stentorian band music, religious dirges and atonal blasts of noise.

Every member of the ensemble cast manages to distinguish themselves: Michael Williams as the sardonic Herald, John Steiner as the foppish Monsieur Dupere, the Greek chorus of the disenfranchised comprising of Freddie Jones, Hugh Sullivan, Jonathan Burn and Jeanette Landis, and Robert Lloyd as the deranged preacher turned rabble-rouser Jacques Roux. Magee and Richardson do battle, reflecting the duality of human impulse, with Rose as the glib political operator moderating their debate. Magee – best known for his role in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971) – has a careworn physiognomy that perfectly elucidates the toll of Sade’s journey into the abyss of human cruelty; while Richardson – forever the Machiavellian Francis Urqhart in the public imagination – plays the tortured idealist with zeal.

In her first major role, Jackson is spellbinding as the young victim of ‘sleeping sickness and melancholia’ who is reluctantly thrust into the role of assassin; conveying Charlotte’s fragility and confusion, trapped in a constant state of dazed semi-consciousness, her breathing tremulous, her diction faltering, her body language cowed; it is the work of an artist at the height of their capabilities.

‘Marat/Sade’ unfolds like a grand metaphor: the inmates are forced into their roles for the pleasure of the elite audience, the bars protecting their shadowy forms from the rabble; the suffering of the many reduced to a theatrical trifle for the few. ‘Marat/Sade’ is imbued with the spirit of rebellion that exploded in 1789, bubbled to the surface once more in 1968 and is beginning to make itself heard again today, lambasting endless war for the personal gain of an already wealthy minority, ‘happy mutual robbery’ and the spoils being ‘grabbed by businessmen, financiers and manipulators’. Conversely, for all his turpitude, Sade is an icon of the Freidman Monetarists, Libertarians and sundry other self-regulators in his assertion that ‘I believe only in myself’, whether they care to acknowledge his legacy or not.

Mainstream theatre has been hijacked by hackneyed recreations of reliable properties and saccharine musical spectacles; its vitality drained by its quest for ever-greater profit; seeking not to challenge and edify, but comfort and pacify. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the current version of ‘Marat/Sade’ met with such opprobrium from a generation of theatregoers inured to such middlebrow fare.

Marat/Sade '11 at the RSC.

Submarine (2010)

19 Jul

Anyone familiar with cult British comedy will be aware of Richard Ayoade; he has made his name as a player in such shows as ‘The Mighty Boosh’, ‘Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace’, ‘Man to Man with Dean Learner’ and ‘The I.T. Crowd’, bringing his gawky charm and E.L. Wisty-esque otherworldliness to a succession of oddballs and outsiders. But TV comedy stars must always enter into the film world with great trepidation, as what makes them so effective in the thirty-minute format often doesn’t translate to the big screen – as Mitchell and Webb’s ‘Magicians’ (2007) is a disappointing testament to. Ayoade wisely opted to stay behind the camera for ‘Submarine’, amassing an impressive cast for this adaptation of Joe Dunthorne’s coming-of-age novel.

Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is a bright but gauche teen living in Swansea in the 1980s. Struggling to fit in at school, he bullies his fellow students in an attempt to impress Jordana (Yasmin Paige), a callous, manipulative classmate who takes pleasure in toying with his emotions, but with whom he is determined to lose his virginity. Oliver’s home life is disrupted when Glen (Paddy Considine), the first love of his mother, Jill (Sally Hawkins), moves in next door, throwing the failings of her marriage into sharp relief. Oliver does his best to rouse his depressive intellectual father, Lloyd (Noah Taylor), and sabotage Glen’s attempts to woo Jill, becoming a go-between for his emotionally stunted parents.

‘Submarine’ makes for frustrating viewing, with Ayoade falling prey to First-Time Director’s Syndrome. The film is burdened by its influences – chiefly Wes Anderson – and struggles to strike the delicate balance of laughs and narrative progression that is crucial to any film comedy’s success. There is a sense that Ayoade is trying way too hard to prove his directorial chops, throwing into the mix every technique at his disposal – slow motion, multiple angles, numerous cuts, freeze frames, split screens, Scorsese-esque ‘Super 8’ segments and a constantly moving camera. It all becomes wearing and has the effect of detracting from the story. Alex Turner throws out a few subpar Arctic Monkeys offcuts, his star cache no doubt helping to market the film in the US.

On the plus side, ‘Submarine’s’ humour is more bittersweet then laugh-out-loud, its sophisticated tone a welcome departure from the crass ‘sex wager’ formula that proliferates the teen comedy genre. The script succeeds in depicting the causal cruelty and mob mentality of the playground; one of its most striking themes is how intellectual curiosity can bring with it a profound sense of insignificance, detailing the travails of the smart. There is a grim authenticity to the depiction of Oliver’s home life: a passive-aggressive minefield where his ultra-vigilant mother and over-analytical father quietly rue their failures and pile their neuroses onto his shoulders. All of which is helped in no small part by Erik Wilson’s downbeat photography, its washed-out palette conveying a wintery chill, and Roberts’ wry narration, which perfectly replicates the inner monologue of a teenage aesthete struggling to come to terms with sexual awakening and domestic upheaval.

A great ensemble cast strives manfully to overcome the glib, comic cadence of the dialogue: Taylor and Hawkins play the saturnine marine biologist and frustrated actress with typical élan, Roberts and Paige have genuine chemistry, Considine provides an injection of broad humour as a leather-clad ‘mystic’ sporting a luxurious mullet, and executive producer Ben Stiller makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance. But, alas, their efforts are undermined by Ayoade’s desire to ape the hyper-stylized, self-aware idioms of US indie cinema. One cannot escape the feeling that, in striving to deliver the desired look, the film loses some of its heart, the end result feeling like a hipster reimagining of ‘Gregory’s Girl’ (1981). All of which is a tremendous shame, as Ayoade clearly has talent as a director; if he can calm down and rein in some of his stylistic excesses, his next project could be something special.

That luxurious mullet.

The Arbor (2010)

25 May

Described by Shelagh Delaney as ‘a genius straight from the slums’, Andrea Dunbar is best known for Alan Clarke’s adaptation of her play, ‘Rita, Sue and Bob Too’ (1987) – which has been dismissed in many quarters as a bawdy romp, but is actually a daring piece of social realism with shades of Nouvelle Vague playfulness. Like Delaney, Dunbar was a teenager when she began documenting the social deprivation she saw around her, detailing lives blighted by poverty and despair with unprecedented frankness. But Clio Barnard’s film is not simply a biopic; it also sheds some light on those affected by Dunbar’s life, and in doing so tells a story as dark and compelling as one of her plays.

Barnard opted for a distinctive technique to tell the body of the story, having actors lip-synch the voices of significant figures from Dunbar’s life. This is interspersed with open-air performances of scenes from Dunbar’s plays, with the denizens of the Bradford housing estate where she grew up watching on, and recreations of the events recounted. Dunbar is shown in clips from TV documentaries, a spectre hovering over events, but the film centres on her youngest daughter, Lorraine.

The most startling thing about ‘The Arbor’ is its depiction of Dunbar. This is not a hagiography which sets out to mythologize her life, sanitize her actions and cement her position in the pantheon of literary greats – with a family estate overseeing its passage. Dunbar’s relationship with her children is depicted exactly as it was: distant, neglectful and violent. Her alcoholism is not used as an excuse to mitigate her behaviour; the film explores the worst and best facets of her personality with equal candour, depicting her as both victim and villain. By learning how she impacted those closest to her, we get a picture of who she was and what inspired her work that a sober appraisal of her oeuvre could never achieve.

‘The Arbor’ is a stylistic triumph; its technical elements combining to create an all-pervading mood of sadness, remorse, anger and hopelessness. Ole Bratt Birkeland’s photography is integral to the establishment of the despondent tone which looms over the housing estates where Dunbar’s creative energies were sparked, capturing the brutal utilitarianism of the backdrop; with Harry Escott and Molly Nyman’s ambient score striking a downcast note throughout.

Casting the actors to mouth the words was essential to the film’s success, and those chosen excel in doing so, replicating the cadences of their subjects to the point of total immersion. Majinder Virk is excellent as Lorraine, Dunbar’s mixed race child. In a heartbreaking synthesis of craft and content, Virk articulates the pain of Lorraine’s abandonment and descent into drugs and prostitution with control and conviction. Elsewhere, Natalie Gavin and Jimi Mistry shine in the performance segments, while Christine Bottomley, George Costigan and Neil Dudgeon bring their gift for depicting the everyday to bear on their roles.

‘The Arbor’ has a scope which belies its relatively slender premise, addressing social issues as well as analysing the place of theatre in society. The film posits that the work of writers like Dunbar takes on the status of a dispatch for an upscale audience, providing an insight into places and lives from which they have insulated themselves; the creator indulged like a noble savage by the cognoscenti.

Barnard, a contemporary of Dunbar’s, cleverly merges Dunbar’s thematic concerns into her own, exploring the inarticulate rage that fuels racism and the plight of communities buffeted by the effects of Thatcherism. ‘The Arbor’ not only provides an overview of Dunbar’s life and work but puts it into historical context; the urge to dramatise her life presaging the public confessional that is a central component of the blogosphere.

You might want to look behind you.

Another Year (2010)

11 Apr

With a minimum of fuss, Mike Leigh has become one of cinema’s most fascinating auteurs, crafting a rich and diverse body of work in the face of growing hostility towards distinctive independent voices. At a time when world cinema is becoming increasingly beholden to the trends emanating from the USA, Leigh’s uniquely British meditations on the tragedy and absurdity of everyday life manage to be artistically rewarding, critically lauded, commercially accessible and economically viable.

Divided into seasons, ‘Another Year’s’ premise is as slight as one would expect from Leigh, following a year in the life of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a geologist and counsellor who have been together since meeting at university. Tom and Gerri hold regular get-togethers at their home, inviting an assortment of people who seem to be struggling to find their way – there is Mary (Lesley Manville), a manic, garrulous receptionist, Ken (Peter Wright), a hard-drinking, lugubrious old friend of Tom’s and Joe (Oliver Maltman), Tom and Gerri’s bachelor son.

‘Another Year’ focuses on people and predicaments that are so often neglected by mainstream cinema – the lives of those over the age of forty, particularly women, are often invisible to the film industry, and Leigh seeks to redress the balance. Overlapping, conversational dialogue combines with Dick Pope’s sterling cinematography to chart the year’s transition, with each season given a distinct mood. The scenes that occur between the major plot points in most other films take on a deeper significance here by dint of some stellar performances and Leigh’s mastery of establishing tone. The seemingly informal intent of Leigh’s directorial choices are in fact carefully crafted to impart something about the characters’ situation throughout – for instance, Tom and Gerri are together in the majority of shots, while Mary is seemingly stranded in the centre of the frame.

What sets Leigh apart from almost any other director is his approach to actors, giving them the latitude to construct a reality for their characters out of the detailed back stories he concocts; however minor the role. This strategy probably explains why his films are stacked with great performances from top to bottom, but also why the ‘Leigh grotesque’ has also become a fixture of his oeuvre. Indeed, it is one of the chief complaints of his work that the freedom he affords his cast often precludes him from reining them in; David Thewlis’s scenery chewing in ‘Naked’ (1993) being a case in point. Manville takes the mantle here, delivering a grandstanding turn that frequently errs on the wrong side of broad.

Manville’s theatrics are contrasted with a raft of assured contributions across the board. Broadbent and Sheen are the foundation which holds the various narrative strands together, lending depth and subtlety to the almost chocolate box depiction of wedded bliss, their inherent likeability preventing the minutiae of domestic routine from becoming repetitive. Leigh regulars Imelda Staunton and Phil Davis make brief appearances, while David Bradley is quietly devastating as Tom’s Brother and Peter Wight commits so fully to the role of the lonely, overweight, embittered mass of self-loathing that you will genuinely worry for his wellbeing. It speaks to Leigh’s standing amongst actors that he was able to get an actor of Staunton’s calibre to appear in two brief, insignificant scenes.

‘Another Year’ exults in the quirks of behaviour and intricacies of interaction, sticking to a few key locations and relying on the strength of the material and the ability of its cast – traits that put it amongst Leigh’s best work. This is as much a paean to fidelity and stability as an elegy to the ageing process, exploring the various ways in which people deal with the loss of their youth – Mary latching onto the vaguest male approbation, Ken complaining that ‘everything is for young people’, Tom and Gerri seeking solace in each other – with Leigh’s customary tragicomic eye. ‘Another Year’ profoundly states that ‘time is unkind’ and all we have to mitigate its impact is each other’s support.

Time is unkind.

The Caretaker (1963)

19 Sep

Donald Pleasence’s varied and daring career is now best remembered for its latter stages, which he spent much of engaged in all manner of folderol; from plotting world domination in the campest possible manner in ‘You Only Live Twice’ to being chased by a maniac in a rubber William Shatner mask in the increasingly preposterous ‘Halloween’ franchise. Ditto Robert Shaw, who shall forever be a grizzled Hemingwayesque mariner in the public’s eyes.

But if you’re keen to seek out examples of these most unique of British theatrical exports before they were snagged by Hollywood and its lucrative yet reductive charms, then ‘The Caretaker’ comes heartily recommended. Thanks to the patronage of numerous luminaries from the worlds of theatre and film – including Noel Coward, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Sellers – Pinter was able to bring his much-lauded play to the screen under the aegis of the newly formed Caretaker Productions, filming on a shoestring in the cramped confines of a house in Hackney.

Aston (Shaw) is a taciturn young man who befriends Mac (Pleasence), a garrulous derelict who has just been sacked from the latest in a long line of temporary menial jobs. Aston offers Mac a job as the caretaker of his dilapidated, cluttered house, which he shares with his glib brother, Mick (Alan Bates). Just relieved to have a roof over his head, Mac unwittingly steps into the middle of an unfolding battle of wits between the brothers, whose mercurial natures and terse exchanges only serve to befuddle and exasperate him. Mac becomes little more than a pawn in their twisted games, never fathoming their true intentions.

Granted, the role of Mac Davis is a classic Pleasence grotesque; a raving, wild-eyed, uncouth reprobate, lurching from combative to sycophantic with alarming regularity. The difference between Mac and the succession of over-the-top lunatics that lamentably became Pleasence’s métier is the power and pathos of the material and the finesse with which it is delivered. Shaw’s performance is mesmerizing in its economy, his strained body language and clipped delivery lending a deep foreboding to Aston’s aloof munificence, every gesture laden with insight. Bates exults in the subtle psychological cruelty he inflicts on the hapless Mac, bringing a creditable unpleasantness to the role without resorting to the overwrought trappings of the archetypal ‘bad guy’. Indeed, the willingness on the part of all three leads to take on such inherently unsympathetic roles exemplifies their standing as actors of serious intent.

The performance-driven dynamic of ‘The Caretaker’ obviously betrays its theatrical origins, but the complaint frequently leveled at stage-to-screen adaptations – that they are little more than filmed plays – is not applicable here. This is a deeply cinematic experience with a diverse filmic palette; thanks in large part to the decision to widen the scope of the play and the cinematography of auteur-in-waiting Nicolas Roeg.

Roeg provides evocative, noiresque photography, harnessing ominous blocks of shadow to create a rich chiaroscuro. Director Richard Donner puts the claustrophobia of the location to good use, fashioning arresting compositions and utilizing extreme angles to create a literal and figurative confinement that adds another layer of potency to the simmering tension at the heart of the interplay. The musical score is equally effective in ramping up the sense of incipient psychosis; consisting of a series of eerie bleeps and sustained chords that punctuates the sparseness of the diegetic soundtrack.

Thematically, ‘The Caretaker’ explores many of the concerns of the early ‘60s British Zeitgeist; the widely held concern over mass migration – Mac’s preoccupation with ‘the blacks’ as the root of all his problems – the burgeoning consumer culture and upward mobility of the age – Mick’s ambitious designs for the house, reeling off a list of furnishings in reverential tones, as though they are a panacea for everything that currently plagues the household – and Britain’s loss of standing in the post-colonial age – it could be argued that Mac himself represents the reduced circumstances of the erstwhile global superpower.

Of course, this being Pinter, none of this is ever explicitly addressed. Various theories have been promulgated; that the three characters represent the Holy Trinity or the workings of the subconscious mind, but the beauty of this and all of Pinter’s work is its ambiguity. The film is rife with symbolism – the crack in the ceiling dripping water into the overflowing bucket, Aston’s cherished Buddha statue, the unconstructed shed, the frozen pond. It is possible to interpret these in numerous ways, but to me they are potent signifiers of the film’s conceptual and narrative arc: the accumulation of grievances, frustrations destined to overflow in a torrent of recrimination, defiance in the face of manipulation and tenuous equilibrium stretched to its limits. In the world of Pinter, the most innocuous gesture, banal act or commonplace item can take on the deepest significance; there is a compelling synecdoche at play throughout.

‘The Caretaker’ is a bold, multi-layered meditation on the nature of power that still crackles with tension to this day; featuring sterling direction, bravura cinematography and Pinter’s renowned ear for dialogue. It’s gratifying to see Pleasence and Shaw practicing their craft in a milieu where they weren’t hamstrung by Hollywood’s inimical demands.

So THIS is what I'll be remembered for!?