A sufferer of chronic treatment-resistant depression reviews ‘Side Effects’ and is not impressed.

Every now and again, I watch the first half of Side Effects and somewhat wistfully pretend it was a good movie. All the potential for it is there. Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) descends into a suicidal depression following her husband’s return from prison for insider trading. When she attempts suicide – twice – her psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) reluctantly prescribes a new miracle drug called Ablixa, whose unfortunate tendency to induce sleepwalking leads Emily to stab her husband to death while she sleeps. The consequences of this drag Emily and Jonathan down into the deep water between the Scylla and Charbydis of institutionalisation and prison, where proof that Ablixa was responsible for the murder becomes the only thing that will save both Emily’s sanity and Jonathan’s all-but-destroyed reputation.


Rooney Mara, who dazzled us so spectacularly in the otherwise-mediocre The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is stunning in this role. Her simultaneously deadpan and stricken face realistically embodies the hunted, yet empty look of depression; and the deep-set hysteria and sluggishness that it inflicts on the human form are evocatively conveyed in the huskiness of her voice and the freneticism of her movements. Some aspects of the script are equally good at conveying what depression can feel like and look like: the constant, torturing knowledge that if things do get better, they’ll almost certainly get bad again at some point in the future; the aversion to standing up because it hurts too much; the way your head feels too heavy for your neck and always makes you want to lean it back against something; the way that death can seem a friend, or at least a pleasant alternative; how things get lost on the way from your brain to your mouth; how you constantly feel like you’re running from something (but never towards something) and how much you want to punch out the teeth of people who claim (meaning well, of course), that they have a fucking clue what you’re going through and presume to give you advice on how to cope. All the pieces are in place for a dark, but cathartic piece of art-house cinema about a woman overcoming the worst thing that this disease can offer a person: having to suffer it while dealing with the loss of someone you love and knowing, all the while, that you’re the one who killed them.


What we get instead is a descent into far-fetched lunacy when it emerges that Emily isn’t sick at all and is conspiring with her lover and former therapist Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta Jones) to make a killing off Ablixa stocks, which have plummeted since the murder. It’s quite literally a case of ‘I’m a therapist, so I’ll teach you how to be depressed; your husband is all into insider trading, so you can teach me that; we’ll make a lot of money and have lots of sex; and you get to kill the son of a bitch who ruined your life into the bargain.’ Some people call this a clever twist. I call it stigmatising a disease that already has enough of a stigma attached to it in the first place. Sure, there is no such thing as the right not to be offended, and it says clearly in the film that Victoria teaching Emily ‘how to be depressed’ is a long and torturous process. But let’s think about the connection between depression and pretending that still exists in the consciousness of the vast majority of people today; and the implications that a film like this has for this connection.


We live in a society in which depression is still widely considered an inadequate excuse for not attending work, a function, a meeting or a family gathering.  Often the sufferer will be told to cheer up, to get a grip on themselves and to stop being so full of nonsense. It will sometimes be whispered behind the sufferer’s back that their depression is a synonym for laziness, an excuse to get out of something, or a form of attention-seeking or hypochondria. And in many cases, and this is far and away the worst part of the problem, the sufferer will often believe this themselves, and will subject themselves to the most horrifying forms of mental torture by brazening out whatever hellish occasion they need to attend regardless of how anguished, despairing, frail and exhausted they feel. Many will even manage (somehow) to pretend that everything’s fine in order to save face with other people and with themselves; and none but the most attentive observer will notice that anything’s wrong with them at all.


Millions of people with depression do this kind of pretending all day every day: we pretend for spouses, for parents, for children, for colleagues, for employees, and for ourselves. We even do it when things get desperate enough for us to call in sick or to stay home because the thought of leaving the house, or even the bed, seems like the equivalent of an apocalypse of the soul. So we lie and say we’ve got the flu or a migraine, because telling the truth exposes us to the infinite variations on ‘cheer up and get a grip’ that are described above. My psychiatrist once said something to me that I’ve never forgotten: ‘If a diabetic collapsed in front of you, would you tell them to cheer up and stop being pathetic? Of course you wouldn’t. So why do people do the same thing with depression? Depression is a disease, just like diabetes is a disease.’ She shocked me, because this very simple, very sensible thought about my own condition had never occurred to me. I don’t for a moment claim to speak for every sufferer of depression, but if this doesn’t even enter the head of someone suffering from depression, then movies like Side Effects aren’t going to generate a whole lot of understanding or empathy from those who do not suffer from it. In a climate in which the links between depression and ‘faking it’ or ‘pretending’ are probably stronger than they ever were, films like Side Effects, that portray depression as something that can be taught and expertly pretended and transform depression into a deception that can be used by a pair of con artists, encourage the myth, however small and careless such encouragement might be. They ensure that the wheel of ‘you’re a hypochondriac ’, ‘cheer up and ‘you’re pretending’ keeps right on turning with no end in sight.

Millions of depressed people are indeed pretending every day of their lives. But we’re not pretending to be sick; we’re pretending to be fine. Perhaps someone should make a movie about that.


Warm Bodies (Film Review)

What am I doing with my life? I’m so pale. I should get out more. I should eat better. My posture is terrible. I should stand up straighter. People would respect me more if I stood up straighter. What’s wrong with me? I just want to connect. Why can’t I connect with people? Oh, right, it’s because I’m dead. I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. I mean, we’re all dead. This girl is dead, that guy is dead. That guy in the corner is definitely dead. Jesus, these guys look awful.

Bittersweet, original and very, very intelligent, Warm Bodies is a not-quite paranormal teen romance for the thinking person. Based on Isaac Marion’s novel of the same name (which has incidentally earned a place at the top of my ‘must read’ list), it’s a cross between a sweeping post-apocalyptic drama and an indie film of the ‘experience everything, love everyone’ persuasion; featuring all the desperation and existentialist angst of the former, as well as the inherent belief in the goodness of humanity that characterises the latter.

After the zombie apocalypse, survivors barricade themselves into a small safe zone surrounded by ‘The Wall,’ where they are able to peter out a militaristic and semi-primitive existence. Children grow into teenagers that carry guns everywhere they go, reject hope and become accustomed to seeing people die on a regular basis. In the miles of empty streets and buildings surrounding The Wall, zombies roam in packs, on the lookout for fresh brains, which usually come in the form of parties of armed volunteers foraging for food or medicine.


It’s in a dilapidated airport where many zombies go to embrace the spirit of Waiting for Godot that we meet our protagonist R (Nicholas Hoult), an idealistic zombie who can barely remember who he is, but who clings desperately to what it felt like to be human. Though he is a zombie in externals, R has a vivid, emotional and quirky inner life that manifests itself in long, revealing inner monologues and is probably best expressed in his love of vinyl records, which he hoards eagerly and listens to nostalgically; the records becoming the voice that he no longer possesses. His longing for the most basic human connection is exemplified by his relationship with his best friend M (Rob Corddry), with whom he occasionally has grunting matches that he pretends are conversations, and with whom he also goes hunting for brains in the vicinity of The Wall.
It is while R and company are ambushing and eating a group of heavily-armed teenagers foraging for medicine that a young girl named Julie (Teresa Palmer) leaps out from behind a medicine cabinet firing a shotgun, her hair flying in slow motion, her eyes shining with the thrill of the kill, and R falls immediately and spectacularly in love, rescuing her from being eaten and keeping her safe within the confines of the jumbo jet that he has made his home. Despite a rocky start, the two manage to connect on the most basic human level over the following days, Julie learning that ‘“corpse” is just a word we invented for a state of being that we don’t understand,’; R discovering that love can literally bring the dead back to life.


The film features an extraordinary performance by Nicholas Hoult, who plays the zombie and human aspects of R’s personality up against each other with great pathos and poignant comedy; his gait, strength and desire for brains spectacular tributes to classical zombie cinema; the moving and sometimes tragic way that his humanity comes bursting through his zombie nature smashing stereotypes to pieces in the most poignant way. His mastery of facial expression enables us to know precisely what R, who can barely speak, is thinking, and works together with his dramatic monologues to create a performance that is exquisite both from a physical and from a psychological aspect.


Teresa Palmer’s Julie is definitely not cut from the same cloth as the boring, breathtakingly beautiful and devastatingly shallow action movie Barbie dolls who make you think that the weight of the gun in their hands is going to make them topple over at any second. She’s one of the most promising heroines to come out of American cinema in years. Older than her years, she displays the brute survival and emotional numbness of a very young person who has grown up witnessing horrible things on a daily basis and who has a kind of kinship with the weapons she uses that one normally only sees in the more feminist heroines of the fantasy genre. My only complaint is that she sometimes gives the impression of being related to Kristen Stewart, which makes one wonder how she will fare in a different sort of role. John Malkovitch lends a superb charisma to the supporting role of General Grigio, Julie’s father and the leader of the military government, and reinforces the largely youthful energy at the film’s heart with a heady dose of gravity and hard experience.


Another exceptional thing about the film is how it uses the concept of being a zombie, or ‘being dead’, to transmit a message about people who don’t fit into society; people who, like R, have an extraordinary character and inner life, and so much to give, but whose awkwardness and ‘differentness’ are so intense that these characteristics evolve into a state of being that does not allow them to do so. The dead do walk among us, waiting to find or to be given the strength to come back to life again. The fact that this is accomplished through love makes the film gorgeously heart-warming without being overly sentimental, a considerable relief for cinema goers who dislike having to bring paper bags with them to the movies in case they need to throw up.

Obstinately refusing to confine itself to a single genre, a sure sign of a good film, Warm Bodies combines brilliant acting with a highly intelligent story, and makes you want to watch it again and again.

Stoker (Film Review)

‘My ears hear what others cannot hear. Small faraway things people cannot normally see are visible to me. These senses are the fruits of a lifetime of longing. Longing to be rescued; to be completed. Just as the skirt needs the wind to billow, I’m not formed by things that are of myself alone. I wear my father’s belt tied around my mother’s blouse, and shoes which are from my uncle. This is me. Just as a flower does not choose its colour, we are not responsible for what we have come to be. Only once you realise this do you become free. And to become adult is to become free.’

Stoker is the tale of how some lucky boys and girls are just born with a talent for violence, of the deep, inextricable link between sex and death, and of how the acceptance of both leads to the coming of age of a killer. Park Chan-wook’s psychological thriller shimmers with the intense visual beauty of the poetic everyday and of the grotesque, and, complimented by a stunning performance from Mia Wasikowska and a gorgeous, if flawed, script by first-time screenwriter Wentworth Miller, it is an infinitely more satisfying cinematic experience than The Great Gatsby.


Mia Wasikowska pushes her considerable command of facial expression to the next level to play India Stoker, a pathologically austere eighteen year old whose father is killed in a car accident on her birthday. This shifting in the balance of her world leads to a near-complete breakdown in her already shaky relationship with her prim, proper and irritating mother (Nicole Kidman) and a skin-crawling, borderline sexual and almost entirely sub-text identification with her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), a prodigal son returned home following the news of her father’s death. As the viewer comes to discover Charlie’s proficiency in charming India’s mother and in putting a belt to deadly use, India begins to discover how acting as a silent, and sometimes unknown observer of Charlie’s crimes and other antics can heal not only the loneliness that she feels after her father’s death, but the isolation from other people that has tortured her entire life, and from which her father, and her hunting trips with him were a welcome respite. Through the shedding of blood and the participation in murder, India wakes up inside and becomes alive in every myriad dimension of what the concept implies, from childlike contentment to orgasmic ecstasy.


Mia Wasikowska is extraordinary, capturing both the boundless delight and the nauseous exhaustion of a person who sees and hears everything in the world but still feels detached from it. Her character remains an enigma till the last moment, her actions impossible to predict, but none of them surprising us: she’s a genuine, entirely contradictory human being. Most of the film’s demanding acting rests on her slender shoulders, and her ability to carry a film in this way at such a young age is testament both to an innate greatness and to the constant progression of it that one finds only too rarely in actresses and actors of similar age. Matthew Goode is creepy in all the necessary ways as Charlie, more nauseating than charming, but nevertheless combining the two in a very effective way; constantly delighted but more often baffled by India, whom he sees as an extension of himself, but whom he is never quite able to capture or tame. The film is rather a waste of Nicole Kidman, her performance an uninteresting specter of her equally uninteresting character in Australia. She nevertheless serves quite adequately as a character whose primary function is to look glacially beautiful and to make us want to slap her.


It is its penetrating yet delicate visual universe that this film will most likely be remembered for. Shooting the film from India’s perspective is conducive to exquisitely artistic cinematography, the world transformed into an intensely sensual place that can caress you or cut you open. Apart from an unforgivable recourse to cliché in the film’s third act that will mortify attentive viewers, Wentworth Miller’s script is highly intelligent, provocative and questioning, the sheer beauty both of its ideas and of the mere combination of words working in perfect counterpoint to the film’s stunning heightened visuality.

Stoker is a film that was meant to be felt and thought as well as watched, and the ideal way to experience it is to simply relax in your seat and to open your eyes and ears to this broken concave mirror reflection of a transition from girlhood to adulthood.

The Great Gatsby (Film Review)

Fearless, sexy, creative, and yet more to be admired than loved, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is a well-written, well-acted and gorgeous experience for the eyes that almost perfectly juxtaposes respect for a well-loved classic with the willingness to do new and interesting things with it. Sadly, it does lack that X-factor spark of the divine fire that makes great cinema, and tends to drag for perhaps twenty minutes too long.

Much of the film’s action is narrated by Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway, who, while seeking treatment for depression, writes of the doomed and ultimately tainted love affair between his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and the enigmatic, tragically optimistic Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose parties attract those seeking to indulge in non-stop, near bacchic revelry and to celebrate at the altar of alcohol. Gatsby’s parties merely reflect the general frenzy of a very frenzied, drunken and violently sexed-up era that is inevitably responsible for Nick’s seeking treatment on the grounds that he has been seized by a fierce disgust of everyone and everything. It only takes the film’s duration for the audience to end up feeling exactly the same way, perhaps because we’ve finally seen the suffering, the emptiness and the desperation that clings to this lifestyle, making the living of it a permanently claustrophobic experience.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby and Carey Mulligan as Daisy.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby and Carey Mulligan as Daisy.

As far as acting goes, the film is miles away from being DiCaprio’s best performance, but he tackles Gatsby with his usual subtlety, insight and knowledge of character, blazing onto the screen like a firecracker, yet still leaving us wondering if we’ll ever find out who he is. Serene calm, flamboyant hospitability, hopeless love and hysterical desperation are vividly and, most importantly, believably, to be found in the same character at precisely the level of intensity we have come to expect from him. Carey Mulligan is as sweet, and eventually as punchable as her character Daisy; superficiality jostling against the desire for something more; superficiality winning the fight when ‘something more’ actually turns out to be difficult. Tobey Maguire’s performance as Nick is perhaps the most memorable despite his speaking voice being most inappropriate for extensive narration: he is perfectly balanced, his face more evocative than any amount of dialogue; he reaches lovingly for Gatsby’s light, but is never blinded by it; insightful enough both to tell Gatsby when he’s wrong and to continue to see Gatsby’s goodness when forgetting about it would have been much better for him. Joel Edgerton is utterly forgettable in his role as the utterly forgettable Tom Buchanan, and Elizabeth Debicki is mesmerising and magnetic as Jordan Baker, boasting a powerful screen presence that satisfyingly makes one constantly aware of her presence in a scene, even if her role in it is relatively unimportant.

Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway and Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker.

Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway and Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker.

And now for some general issues. The 3D medium accomplishes almost nothing in this film, and those expecting Baz Luhrmann to have demonstrated the correct use of the medium, as Martin Scorsese did in Hugo, will be sorely disappointed. The Great Gatsby would have been a feast for the eyes at precisely the same level without being filmed in 3D. Apart from the obvious artistry of its party and high speed driving scenes, it also produces many wonderfully artistic and achingly beautiful visual moments that appeal gloriously to the senses, notably the scene in which we meet Daisy for the first time, lounging as she does on a couch as a strong wind blows each white curtain in the room inwards, creating a sea of fresh whiteness ushered in on a breeze so strong you almost feel it on your skin. The breathtaking costumes and makeup only add to the sprawling beauty of the film’s art direction, spectres that heighten in colour and in appeal with alcohol and with dance, increasing our willingness to ignore what lies beneath them.

While the film more than meets its visual obligations, the same cannot be said for its auditory ones, its much-hyped soundtrack not putting in much of a noticeable appearance beyond the over-using of Lana Del Rey and the under-using of Florence and the Machine.

I cannot vouch for the film’s accuracy as an adaptation from the book, the last time I tried to read it having alternated between snoozing, wincing and throwing it against the wall, but the script is beautiful and unusually well-structured, giving both the story and the actors room to breathe, and to be.

A film of sweeping and kaleidoscopic beauty, but by no means a great classic in the making, The Great Gatsby is a film with a hole in its heart. It might grab your attention, entertain you or impress you, but it will not move you. This, regrettably, is its ultimate weakness.

Underrated and misunderstood: The Village (Film Review)

Filmed back in the good old days when M. Night Shyamalan still knew how to make movies, The Village is probably one of the most underrated and most misunderstood films out there, boasting a captivating heroine, an ageless story and a mastery of the subtle, psychological terror that typifies its unfortunate director’s earlier films.


In an unnamed, rural American village in the late 1800’s lives a small, closed community of people that have entered into a truce with the creatures that populate the wood that surrounds their home on all sides. Each leaves the other alone, in exchange for no breach of borders. This has effectively cut the village off from the outside world, subjecting it to many of the tragic disadvantages that such a situation implies, exemplified by the film’s simple but moving opening portrayal of the funeral of a seven year old boy. Moved by the death of this child, with whom he had bonded, Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) asks permission to travel through the woods to the outside world, or ‘the towns’ to collect medicines that may save others from a similar fate. Having ascertained that the mentally-challenged Noah Percy (Adrien Brody), whom I hesitate the call the village idiot, has entered the woods before, he is convinced that the creatures will not harm him. Following this request, the village is soon bombarded by a variety of gruesome breaches of their border that positively scream ‘keep out,’ triggering an escalated fear of the woods and what lies within them. It’s only when Lucius is mortally wounded on the morning of his engagement that his young, blind fiancée Ivy Walker (a sublime Bryce Dallas Howard) decides to enter the woods and go to the towns to find the medicine that will save him. Her journey is a fierce, numbing, terrifying crossing across a world of fear rendered all the more dreadful by her heightened sense of hearing and stubborn determination to keep going no matter what.


Bryce Dallas Howard is mesmerising and luminous as the fiercely passionate and sanguine Ivy. She steers clear of stereotype by maintaining perfect equilibrium between the wild, red-haired tomboy and the sweet, feminine young girl. Having only the dimmest notion of what ‘sight’ actually is, she is not accustomed to hiding her emotions in her face. In consequence, she’s vividly raw and expressive; her smiles unashamedly wide, disarming and infectious; her moments of terror an intimate-feeling vision of dread and panic. The success of the film’s entire last act rests solely on her shoulders as she travels alone through the woods. Her universe, which she has previously known only as comprising familiar village sounds and presences, suddenly becomes a nightmarish, claustrophobic sound world in which each rustle or snapping of a twig signifies a black hole of fear, despair, helplessness and potential death. Shyamalan makes extensive use of the symbolism of woods in folklore as representing journeying, coming of age, the supernatural, and the potential for losing oneself, all of which influence Dallas Howard’s performance. The wood seems to swallow Ivy up, to deliberately put her on the wrong path and to lead her into danger, and our ordinary perceptions join with Ivy’s heightened ones to create an atmosphere than shimmers menacingly with fear, danger and sinister beauty.


Yet living alongside Ivy’s fear, we see a grim determination and courage that stems from the endurance of horror for the sake of love and which is ultimately what makes this slight, blind girl run deeper and deeper into a place she has feared her entire life. Ivy’s blinding light bonds perfectly with Joaquin Phoenix’s taciturn, yet somehow magnetic Lucius, who possesses an undefinable ability to lead and an unassuming courage and leaning towards the new while still wishing to preserve the old. Phoenix’s ability to convey all this through a character that is established from the beginning as being overly-fond of silence is very impressive, but if this film belongs to anyone, it belongs to Dallas Howard. Much of the film’s gorgeous soundtrack is influenced by her character, so that even in the rare moments when she’s not on screen, her presence is constantly felt.

Much of the film’s action spirals out from the isolation of its setting. The village is a place founded to ensure the protection of innocence, and is consequently free of corrupting elements; there’s no money, for instance; its young men and women marry for love; and even in adult characters there is a youthful playfulness and laughter in the way they go about their lives. Its inhabitants speak a gorgeous hybrid of English that I would love to think was conceived especially for the movie, but which I am inclined to think resulted from Shyamalan’s lack of knowledge as to how people spoke in the 19th century. Wherever it comes from, the way the characters speak only adds to the utopian air of their lives. But while the village does indeed aim and often succeeds to be a kind of utopian society, it is founded not merely on innocence but also on hatred and pain; a hatred of the modern world and of the sorrow that living in it brings. It shows us what people are willing to do to avoid sorrow, but also details how, in a society made to protect innocence and exclude strife, sorrow still follows humanity wherever it goes and wherever it tries to escape to.


This constant shadow is ever present in the faces and voices of the village elders, the commanding screen presences of old guard actors like William Hurt, Brendan Gleeson and Sigourney Weaver keeping it constantly in the foreground, where it lies hidden in plain sight from the young and carefree. To those who know something of the outside world, living is sorrow; and life, their life, has always been the choosing of one sorrow over another that they consider far greater. But is this choice right? It is left to the viewer to decide.

Widely hated and ridiculed, The Village garnered largely bad to average reviews at the time of its release, with many critics seeing it as the first level in M. Night Shyamalan’s fall from grace. What it really is is the peak of Shyamalan’s career: he simply peaked too quickly. The cinematography is gorgeous, the script highly aesthetic, and the acting first class. It is only after this film that things started to get as spectacularly bad as they are today.

Music/life: ‘Quartet’ (Film Review)

Quartet is a rare thing. While it does leave you smiling in contentment like a Cheshire cat, the light is shaded by such sadness and nostalgia that the scales are tipped from comedy to drama fairly often. Nevertheless, the film is uproariously funny, deeply intelligent and blows any other ensemble cast this year completely out of the water with incandescent acting from Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins.


Most of the film’s plot plays out at Beecham House, a retirement home for musicians that allows for all the beauty and eccentricity that such a name implies: continuing to play the clarinet when you have to stop every two seconds for breath, musing on how you never achieved less than twelve curtain calls, arguing about how you should have sung more Wagner and why, and doing all the stuff you never could during your career because your days were entirely composed of practicing and performing. The arrival of top soprano Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) in the midst of ongoing rehearsals for an annual gala aimed at keeping the establishment afloat, triggers a cautious reunion with ex-husband Reggie Paget (Tom Courtenay) and former colleagues Wilfred Bond (Billy Connolly) and Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins). Together, they constitute a former operatic quartet known for their celebrated performance of the quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto, and it is almost immediately suggested that it be revived in time for the gala. To adequately describe the drama that ensues, let’s quote Stephen Poliakoff: each of the characters comes face to face with memories.


Quartet has the rare advantage of great actors working with a great script, something that occurs only too seldom nowadays. Maggie Smith’s performance as Jean is a welcome respite from Her Ladyship the Dowager Countess: she’s mercurial, moving and tragic. Haunted by a Callas-like depressive longing for the voice of her youth, she lashes out acrimoniously at anybody who attempts to breach that magic circle or to have so much as a cursory conversation with her. Her face and eyes are profoundly expressive of grief and regret, and the viewer is conscious, in certain moments, of observing true artistic greatness. It is her best and most interesting performance in years: sad, funny, and effortlessly charismatic. On a less relevant note, the rather cantankerous roles Dame Maggie has been occupying herself with of late are also responsible for making one forget what a beautiful woman she is: in this role, that beauty is present in an almost luminous way and makes her all the more enthralling to watch.

Chemistry wise, Smith is also an ideal match for opposite-number Tom Courtenay, who is positively awe-inspiring as Reggie. In each of Courtenay’s roles, from Doctor Zhivago right up to Little Dorrit, one is always struck by a disbelieving awareness of his near-volcanic screen presence; how he commandingly shifts focus from everything around him simply by standing silent, reflecting. It’s a natural talent that is incredible to watch, but by no means constitutes the sum total of his performance. Of all the characters, Reggie is by perhaps the most multi-faceted, both in terms of his personality and in terms of the universality of music and the role of music in a great artist’s life. In terms of the former, there is one particularly charming scene in which he gives a lecture on opera to a group of teenagers. Utterly without ostentation, he questions them on their tastes in music (most of which he admits to knowing nothing about) before attempting to find something in opera that his audience can relate to. He eventually comes up with this little gem that builds on a joke that every opera fan is familiar with: ‘Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back, and instead of bleeding, he sings. It seems to me that rap is when a guy gets stabbed in the back, and instead of bleeding, he talks.’ Reggie’s devotion to his art, but willingness to try to understand the art of others and to find parallels between them, is something that even today’s opera climate needs desperately, and it is a testament to the originality and insight of the script that this aspect of music comes out through the character that is by far most old-fashioned. It is also through Reggie and the re-kindling of his previously-catastrophic relationship with Jean that we witness the tragedy of ‘music or life,’ a choice that every great musician ultimately has to make. Music usually wins, but it is the supreme beauty of this film that great musicians in their twilight years are able to choose life, through music – and actually enjoy it. Courtenay’s performance is both subtle and powerfully dramatic, his exquisite face and voice playing out against each other with perfect equilibrium, and perfect pathos.


The other, more riotous half of the quartet are as riotous as can be. Billy Connolly is absolutely filthy as the sexed-up Wilfred (filthy in an entirely positive way), his performance a perpetual, glowing river of comic genius and upbeat carpe diem hilarity that work both as a perfect counterpoint to best mate Reggie’s constant brooding and an incredibly strong stand-alone performance. Pauline Collins is also disarmingly dotty, lovable and hilarious as the pathologically amnesiac Cissy, her sometimes alarming memory lapses like a shadow that contributes considerably to the film’s darker nuances. It also wouldn’t be entirely fair not to mention Michael Gambon’s delightful supporting role as Cyril, drama queen and impresario, who likes to recline on sofas in elaborate Oriental dressing gowns telling people to shut up and change their repertoire.


Staying with cast, director Dustin Hoffman’s decision to cast retired musicians rather than actors in supporting roles works wonders in creating an entirely authentic atmosphere. The kind of mini-society that creates itself when you shut a group of classical musicians up together for any length of time is conveyed with astonishing and moving accuracy, as are the intense seriousness (and the intense laughter) of what goes on in the practice rooms. There is none of the dreadful miming and purposeless gestural pyrotechnics that string musicians and pianists in particular usually have to put up with when watching this type of movie and the train-spotting is great fun. The film’s authenticity is also greatly increased by the fact that the ‘smelling the roses’ thing is not rammed down your throat at all and is implied rather than stated, complimenting the film’s heartwarming universality.


Quartet is a truly great film. Engaging, entertaining, movingly real, brilliantly acted and brilliantly written, and perhaps above all, refreshing. It is genuinely great material written for older actors; there are none of the clichés of mothers, grandmothers and old maids that national treasures usually have to play simply because they’re old. It gives our greatest actors work that they can actually sink their teeth into, creating an entirely new and original top level in the upper echelons of acting. It reminds us that human drama, tragedy and catharsis are timeless and ageless, and that when all this complexity is played out by people who are old enough to understand it and to understand how it should be portrayed, the time has indeed come for the professionals to take over.

Unearthly: Daniel Day-Lewis mesmerises in ‘Lincoln’.


Lincoln is an incomprehensibly fast three hours to sit through. Often more like a play than a film, much of the action takes place in a freezing indoor world of murky grey and black hues; the outside world, and history, constantly threatening to come bursting in through the windows. This darkness makes the film’s more luminous moments all the more beautiful and, perhaps intentionally, leads us to search for sources of light in the outstanding supporting cast, and of course, in Lincoln himself, played by the great Daniel-Day Lewis.

The film details President Lincoln’s efforts to introduce the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, an action that will put an end to the American Civil War (thus delighting many people) while simultaneously ending the institution of slavery (thus annoying many people). Amidst howls of indignation and accusations of underhandedness and dictatorship in both the political and military arenas, a somewhat mad scramble is set in motion to attain sufficient support before the motion is put to the vote. Though the film is fiercely and very intelligently political, a whole host of other dramas take place both at and around its political center, both in Lincoln’s life and in the lives of those that live both in his light and in his shadow. These dramas remind you that all this noise is really about whether or not another person’s humanity can, or even should, be recognised; about who can be free, who can’t, and why, not just in terms of slavery, but in terms of war and in terms of home; everyday life. It’s not just the story of the United States, but the story of all of us, and this is a big part of the film’s intrinsic value.


The power of Daniel Day-Lewis’ half-human, half-angelic presence in the title role honestly defies description, but I will try my best. His presence in a scene creates an invisible shifting in atmosphere like the effect of a slight breeze in a closed room. He speaks in a small, hushed and ravaged voice that somehow resonates right down to your bones. You stare for hours at his ethereal, emaciated form and beautiful face, and find such kindness, pain and glorious humanity staring back at you. You worry that he’s going to fall over and smash. You listen, charmed and enthralled in spite of yourself, to his digressive storytelling, literary references and constant quoting of Shakespeare, spellbound by the places they take him. You smile at his unforced ease in engaging with people from both the ‘wrong’ and the ‘right’ sides of the tracks with equal respect. Eventually, you realise that the principal emotion he inspires is affection, which is an astonishing and rather rare thing to inspire in a film audience nowadays. In the film’s featurette, Day-Lewis says something to the effect of him never having loved another, non-living human being as much as Abraham Lincoln. This love for the character is astoundingly contagious, and, when it comes to Lincoln’s assassination, it puts the audience into the position of understanding, on as deep a level as something like a film can take you, what a catastrophe his loss must have been for so many people. Day-Lewis’ performance amounts to three hours of acting genius: subtle, nuanced and incredibly powerful.


Steven Spielberg happily hasn’t made the mistake of casting a load of ninnies in supporting roles that you forget about the minute they’re off-screen (and often when they’re on-screen, too). His fine supporting cast is distinctive and commanding, most notably Tommy Lee Jones as the formidable Republican Radical leader Thaddeus Stevens, a fiercely opinionated abolitionist who grabs the audience’s attention by the scruff of the neck and whose intense command of voice and facial expression makes sure your attention stays with him long after he’s let you go. Further excellent performances by David Strathairn as long-suffering Secretary of State William Seward and by Lee Pace as Fernando Wood. Poor Sally Field doesn’t get much time to shine as First Lady Mary Lincoln, but keep a sharp eye-out for her and her husband’s heart-rending argument about the death of their son; an intensely emotive scene that brings both actors out in all the dazzling complexity of their characters.


The only complaint I have to make of the film is, oddly, its beginning and its ending. Both seem rather rushed, disjointed and out of touch with the rest of the film, particularly the ending. The Thirteenth Amendment is passed; everyone is thrilled; Lincoln asks the Confederacy to surrender and utters the beautiful line ‘Shall we stop this bleeding?’ Then, suddenly, we’re rushed through to Lincoln’s assassination (which we don’t see take place) like Garfield to a plate of lasagna. It leaves you blinking in amazement and wondering confusedly how you got there in the first place. Personally, I don’t think dealing with the assassination is necessary at all: the audience knows it’s going to happen; its influence is there even if it isn’t shown. End with ‘Shall we stop this bleeding?’ It’s poignant. It takes you somewhere. It gives you hope. Or, if the assassination is, for some reason, a big part of the director’s vision, then start with it, tell the story in flashback, and bring things full circle. Don’t just dump the audience into it! It turns the end of the film into a bit of an anticlimax.

Otherwise, beautiful. The decision to cut down on huge, expensive battle scenes and to bring the drama of the civil war and of slavery into cluttered drawing rooms gives the exquisite cast ample opportunity to make the drama vividly real and for the audience to experience the actions and feelings of the characters in a very personal way.