Tuesday’s Reviews – The Darkest Hour (2017)

blogger, blogging, film, film blogger, film blogging, film reviews, films, fucking awesome, Gary Oldman, politics, review, reviewing, reviews, war, world war II

darkest-hour5_star_rating_system_4_stars1 With less than a week until the Oscars, my quest to watch all of the Best Picture nominations is getting quite tense. I’ve got three more to go and I’m not really super keen to watch either of them. I managed to watch two in quick succession last week so, if I’m clever with my time, I should be okay. It’s just a shame that the film I’m talking about today marks the end of the list of films I really wanted to see. The Darkest Hour is something I’ve been excited about for months. Combining my love of history and Gary Oldman; what could be better? When the first pictures of Oldman in his full Winston Churchill costume came out months ago, everyone was apparently amazed by the transformation. The picture was placed on the front of newspapers along with the tantalising caption of “we bet you’ll never guess who this really is” or something. I didn’t get the uproar. I mean anyone that looked at the photo should instantly be able to see Gary Oldman’s eyes staring back at them. Don’t get me wrong, the transformation was incredibly but it’s quite clearly the actor underneath all of that makeup. I admit, I have a bit of a soft spot for Oldman so I might be more familiar with his face than many people. It meant that whenever I saw photos from the set of The Darkest Hour I only ever saw Oldman and not one of the greatest Prime Minster’s the UK has ever seen.

Book Review – War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

blogger, blogging, book, book blogger, book blogging, book review, books, film blogger, film blogging, fucking magic horse, fucking twee, meh, war

IMG_42645_star_rating_system_2_and_a_half_stars If you follow me on Instagram then you’ll be aware that last week I was lucky enough to see the stage version of the book War Horse. It was an absolutely amazing experience that I will never forget and one that left me an emotional wreck for days. I don’t understand it but the deaths of massive wooden puppets was super traumatic. As a huge literary nerd and a bit of a history geek too, World War 1 has always been somewhat fascinating for me so I’ve been interested in War Horse for a while. It wasn’t until I watched Steven Spielberg’s film in 2012 that I became familiar with the story and, if I’m honest, it left me feeling more than a little critical. As I suggested in my review, I felt sad that society could only become emotionally invested in the story of the Great War through the treatment of horses. I mean I’ve got nothing against horses but why do we need to make a film about a horse when loads of innocent, young men died as well? Human beings care more about animals at times than they do about strangers. It’s ridiculous. Going off topic for a second, I once heard a story (probably not true) about a charity that went around giving food to the pets of homeless people. Now I have nothing against this kind act on its own but the same people were (allegedly) only giving food to the animals. Now, I realise dogs that live on the street deserve food but what kind of fucked up person would not also give food to the owner? Anyway, I’ve had my misgivings about Michael Morpurgo’s story of a magical fucking horse since I laughed my way through Spielberg’s film but the stage show had me changing my mind. Maybe there was something there after all?

Sunday Rundown – That’s What She Read

blogger, blogging, book, book blogger, book blogging, book haul, book review, books, film blogger, film blogging, film reviews, Netflix, review, reviewing, reviews, rundown, war

This has been a tough weekend work wise if I’m honest. It’s been super stressful so I’ve been avoiding reading. Well, I’ve managed to do some reading but it’s not been great. I still haven’t finished War Horse which I started this week with the intention of finishing before I saw the stage version. Even though I didn’t manage that I absolutely adored the play. I mean, I was in floods of tears but it was exquisite. So well realised and mesmerising but, also, so good at capturing the real consequences of war. It was so much more meaningful and powerful than Steven Spielberg’s film version. He completely lost his way with that film and I spent most of my time laughing. I really hated that film and, if you’re interested, you can hear more of my rants in my review from 2012 here.

SUNDAY RUNDOWN – THAT’S WHAT SHE READ

book haul, books, currently reading, history, Penguin Books, poetry, recently watched, war, YA

Going back to work after having a few days off last week proved to be extremely difficult. So, it came as a major surprise that I managed to keep on top of reading. I’ve decided I finally need to sort my sleeping habits out. Usually, I stay up way too late before work. This is mainly because I want to take full advantage of the time I have before I go back the next day. Just one of the major struggles of working in a job that you have zero passion for. Anyway, to get myself in better shape I’ve been trying to turn my computer off early and read for an hour or so before I go to bed. What usually happens now is that I get so engrossed in my book that I lose track of time but it’s an improvement, right? Whilst it may not be doing wonders for the amount of sleep I’m getting, it does mean that I’m making progress with my books read this year. I’ve finished another book finally. It takes a bit of pressure off after the 3/4 months that I spent getting through 7th Function. Fingers crossed it’s a sign things are improving.
Just Finished

  • One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus

So, as expected, I got through this book pretty quickly. I plan on writing my thoughts up for me Tuesday review so come back soon.


Currently Reading

  • The Answers by Catherine Lacey
This was the book I was supposed to read after I finished 7th Function so, after my brief detour, I decided to finally open it. This book has been top of my TBR pile for a while and I’m super intrigued about how it’s going to turn out. The premise sounds like something you’d seen in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. A desperately ill and broke young woman signs up to take part in an actor’s girlfriend experience. Then, inevitably, the shit hits the fan. I’m hoping this is as good as it sounds.

Recently Purchased 
  • Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

I have seen this book of poetry all over Instagram in the past few months and have desperately wanted it. With Kaur’s second collection of poetry being released next month and finding myself in an emotional state, I decided it was the perfect time to buy it. I’ve already read snippets so I’ll be glad to finally get to grips with this collection.

  • The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

On the same impromptu shopping trip that saw me buy Milk and Honey I also purchased this book. I’ll be honest, I only got this because I loved the cover. It’s a Penguin book and was so striking that I couldn’t not pick it up. Then I read the blurb and was hooked. This is the English language translation of the history of Soviet women in World War 2. Svetlana Alexievich wanted to tell the story of all of the strong women in her life who helped with the war effort but were deleted from official history. Now you all should know that I’m a lover of all things that show how great women are and this just sounds perfect. Combined with my love of history, I can’t think of a better book to get stuck into.

Recently Watched 
  • Netflix Binges: Modern Family, Travel Man
Took a slight break but I’m back on my Modern Family rewatch. It’s so awkward in the first few seasons but so funny. I had forgotten some of the great moments that happened early on. At the same time, I watched the Channel 4 series Travel Man in which Richard Ayoade, a man I love intensely, spend 48 hours in a city with a famous person. It’s funny, informative and really makes me want to get on a plane.

TBT – Saving Private Ryan (1998)

films, gruesome, Matt Damon, reviews, Steven Spielberg, TBT, Tom Hanks, war, world war II

I’ve eaten so much food today and I really don’t know why. Well, that’s not strictly true. I did because I’m bored. I’m meant to be getting my life (aka my house) in order before I head back to work but it really doesn’t appeal. So instead, I’ve been lying down, stuffing my face and watching soldiers die horribly in Steven Spielberg’s 1990s epic war film. It’s been a while since I saw this film and have preferred to watch the version shown on the Adam and Joe Show. Yes, it may be played out with stuffed toys and not people but that doesn’t mean its not as good as the original. Still, after watching Dunkirk I decided it was time to rewatch Spielberg’s war epic. Saving Private Ryan was one of those films that changed the way war films were made. It inspired several directors and, according to Quentin Tarantino, inspired Inglorious Basterds. It was also, apparently, the first time that people realised that World War II was awful. The majority of things I hear people say about this film is along the lines of “it really brought home to me the reality of war”. As if, before 1998, there existed some people who thought World War II was a fucking picnic for everyone involved. Personally, I’ve never needed Steven Spielberg to paint me a vivid picture of what a real battle sequence might be like to know its somewhere I don’t want to be. I’ve never really thought to myself “I really wish I was alive in the 1940s because it seems like it might be fun”. Still, it’s good to know that this film helped some people get over the crazy notion that was is good.

If there’s one thing that Steven Spielberg can do it’s create a memorable visual. We all vividly remember the water glass from Jurassic Park, the girl in red from Schindler’s List and ET and Eliot flying in front of the moon. The one that sticks with most people, though? The opening of Saving Private Ryan. It’s the thing that so many people have referenced in relation to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk because it is still considered to be the best interpretation of war ever created for the big screen. I’m not going to sit here and deny that the opening sequence isn’t great. It really is. It’s a horrific representation of what happened on Omaha beach in 1944 and it places the audience uncomfortably in the middle of the action. Even now, nearly 20 years later, this sequence still feels as gruesome and important as it did way back when.

However, the problem with these magnificent film moments is that people become blinded to the faults that come before and after. The sequence of the Normandy landings is regularly referred to as the film’s opening but it isn’t. No no. The film is patriotically bookended with some muted shots of an American flag flapping in the breeze as well as the overly sentimental prologue and epilogue showing an elderly Private Ryan visiting the graves of fallen soldiers. Had we opened in the midst of the D-Day sequence this film would have had an entirely different feel to it but, thanks to these brief moments, the film ends up feeling more like another attempt by Hollywood to bolster the myth that WWII was the good war and showcased the American spirit. It prevents the film from being the kind of critique of war that the first battle suggested it could be and, instead, turns into an American story of American heroes.

Spielberg’s film has been hailed as something of a masterpiece from the moment of its initial release and it’s easy to see why. The film is incredibly well made and the visuals are stunning. The battle sequences have still never been beaten in terms of realism and it more than adequately shows the waste of life that occurred in Europe. The main part of the narrative is intended to show us the ridiculous nature of war. We see a group of 8 men sent out on a mission to save the life of one soldier all because his mother had already lost 3 sons. It’s a sad story, obviously, but it is a preposterous notion. How can the army justify the lives of so many for the sake of 1? Every single man in the group agrees and, when all is said and done, don’t really give a shit about the life of Private James Ryan (Matt Damon). How can his mother’s suffering be more important than their own?

Still, this is war and they have to follow their Captain, John Miller’s (Tom Hanks), orders. So the group set off on their mission through Nazi occupied France. They lose men along the way and struggle to keep themselves going. But, somehow, they do. The hapless group find Private Ryan and a small group of soldiers defending a bridge. After a harrowing and spectacular opening sequence, Saving Private Ryan kind of loses its way during the main bulk of the narrative. Spielberg clearly tries to push his message about the futility of war but it kind of gets lost. Saving Private Ryan falls back into the Hollywood tradition of the Wild West movie. We see our band of heroes make their way through the landscape and heroically fighting the bad guys whenever they need. The script may make the occasional reference to the absurd nature of their assignment but there is an inescapable sense that what they are doing is both moral and brave.

I don’t hate Saving Private Ryan by any stretch of the imagination but, aside from the depictions of warfare, it doesn’t portray its message adequately enough. This film didn’t go far enough to blow the lid on the meaningless sacrifice that was made by the men who died in combat between 1939 and 1945. It is every war movie cliche rolled into one. It doesn’t directly say that war is heroic and the soldiers are fighting for their country but that is the message we are seeing. It glorifies the men on screen instead of adequately questioning the men in charge. When I reviewed War Horse for this blog I criticised Spielberg for sugaring the pill for his younger audience. He desensitised the audience by hiding the death with cutaways. Here he has no issue with showing us how deadly the war was for the people involved but what follows is sheer Hollywood. The story of a whole load of men dying so one mother can be slightly less sad.

Saving Private Ryan isn’t a bad film. It’s a very good film that showcases everything that has made Steven Spielberg as popular a director as he. It features strong performances from its cast and had a profound affect on the people who sat in movie theatres to watch it back in 1998. It’s a great film but is it a masterpiece? Or is it just a great 20 minute sequence surrounded by harmless Hollywood schmaltz?

Tuesday’s Reviews – Dunkirk (2017)

Christopher Nolan, films, fucking beautiful, fucking sad, fucking tragic, Kenneth Branagh, reviews, Tom Hardy, war, world war II


So, I guess I have to start off today’s post by apologising for a lack of Rundown this week. I’ve been away this weekend for a big family celebration. August 20th 2017 was the 40th anniversary of my parent’s marriage and my older sister’s 1st anniversary. To celebrate the entire clan made their way to a lovely cottage in Scotland. The rest of my family managed to get the Friday off work but I had to travel up after I finished my shift. It meant the latter half of my week was pretty intense. It was my intention to either get ahead with my Sunday post or do it on Monday, when I got back. Neither of those things came to fruition and I decided it was better to just not do one. Which is a shame because I’ve actually done some fucking reading this week. Anyway, I’m back now and ready to get on with my regularly scheduled uploads. Starting with a review I wanted to write in reaction to this weekend. My twin sister’s boyfriend made the very bold statement that Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk wasn’t worth watching. An opinion that goes against everything that everyone has ever said about it. So, because I’m really stubborn and love proving people wrong, I decided it was time I watched it myself. Because I refuse to believe something that looks that good could ever be described as much worse than Saving Private Ryan.

When you talk about World War II on the big screen there will be very few people who won’t reference the opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and for good reason. It is still one of the most iconic opening sequences in film history. Spielberg places his audience in the midst of a very bloody, dramatic and, ultimately, realistic depiction of American soldiers landing on Omaha Beach in 1944. It’s awful but shows the true cost of the conflict. After that, well, things get more Hollywood and it turns into a kind of ridiculous narrative littered with sequences of war porn that will keep any young boy on the edge of his seat. You can see why people love it but, when it comes to realistic portrayal of WWII, it’s safe to say that Spielberg kind of loses his way.

There’s a danger that every Hollywood depiction of any major historical conflict will eventually forgo accuracy in favour of excitement and action. I can see why; for one thing we want to celebrate the sacrifice that young men made for our future as well as satisfying the modern film audience. Well, that’s where Dunkirk makes itself stand out. For starters the film is based around an important military defeat. French, British and Belgian troops were trapped by German soldiers and we forced to evacuate. It was only luck and some bad German strategy that so many men were able to be saved. Nolan never intended to write a film about the great victories of WWII but, instead, to create a realistic interpretation of what happened on and around that beach. We don’t know who his characters are or where they came from because, ultimately, that doesn’t matter. All that matters is this moment. Will they survive or be blown to pieces by German fighter pilots?
Dunkirk isn’t anything like Saving Private Ryan. It doesn’t create an overly sentimental narrative that provides plenty of opportunity for heroic acts and men laying down their lives for others. It shows a bunch of scared young men who would do anything in their power to get home. It doesn’t use any real trickery, besides a fantastic score by Hans Zimmer and some sensational visuals, to really bring home the horror. Nolan does everything within his power to confuse your senses and splits the narrative into three distinctive parts. The story is told from land, air and sea and, thanks to the editing, time becomes a rather meaningless and fluid concept. I won’t pretend that the split isn’t a little frustrating and awkward. However, I can appreciate the overriding impact that it has on the film. It all adds to the chaos that Nolan is trying to create and, for the people involved, time would have become meaningless anyway. When you’re potentially seconds away from death with nowhere to hide what does it matter?
For a war film, Dunkirk is a fairly static film. It’s a deceivingly slow and quiet film that creates a real sense of tension, chaos and horror. It lacks much in the way of dialogue but shows you, first-hand, the kind of scenes that will have taken place in 1940. It’s a claustrophobic experience that places you in the very heart of the story. When bombs start dropping you find yourself there not just watching, horrified, from the sidelines. The image that came so prominently out of the trailers was the sweeping shot of a bunch of soldiers crammed into the mole, a pier-like structure that is being used to get men onto awaiting ships. When a German bomber flies overhead the men below are penned in like fish in a barrel. It’s an impressive and haunting visual that really sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Dunkirk works so well because of the images that have been created on screen but it is carried along by the stunning performances on display. The ensemble is, quite frankly, amazing and, though it scares the shit out of me to write it, even Harry Styles himself proves to be pretty watchable. Thee isn’t really anyone who puts a foot wrong here. It’s all sensation, from Tom Hardy’s resolute and ever so slightly gung-ho pilot, Farrier to Mark Rylance’s quiet but steely sailor who is one of the civilians caught up in the rescue mission. Dear old Kenny B oversees all the action with a broody intensity as he closely watches the skies for a glimpse of enemy planes. You meet these people so fleetingly and get no real sense of their characters before they are plunged into danger and chaos. Nolan and his cast have done an amazing job of creating that feeling of being anonymous in a crowd. No single person matters more than anyone else and everyone becomes an equal in the scramble to rescue as many soldiers as possible. It doesn’t even matter that you might not remember who everyone is. That’s the point. It’s the reality of war.
However, despite all of this horrible reality, Dunkirk doesn’t fall into the trap that films like Saving Private Ryan do. It chooses to avoid the R rated violence in favour of a different message. The Dunkirk evacuations were a failure in terms of British military efforts but, at its heart, it is a real underdog story. This is the story of survival and the British spirit that allowed it to happen. What Dunkirk chooses to show instead of bloodshed is the connection between military men and the normal civilians who put themselves in danger to rescue them. I fail to believe there can be a dry eye in the house when the fleet of civilians boats float towards the beach to the sound of rapturous applause from the awaiting men. This film doesn’t attempt to glorify violence or war. Instead it shows the important of people coming together. The strength that can be found in unlikely places. We don’t really see any German forces in this film and, save for a brief reference at the end, we hear nothing from Winston Churchill himself. Dunkirk isn’t really a war film: it is a film of survival and the human spirit. And, no matter what my sister’s boyfriend says, I think its perfect.

The Imitation Game (2014)

Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, review, war
I think, by now, I’ve made my feelings about Benedict Cumberbatch pretty fucking clear. However, for those of you not paying attention, I’m more than happy to repeat myself. I love him and his weird alien, ottery face. There is very little that I wouldn’t be happy to sit through just to watch him. Hell, if I sat through the abysmal and disappointing August: Osage County then I could probably sit through any old shit if I had his face for company. It also helps that the story of Alan Turing is one of the few films that genuinely deserves to be made into a film. The man was a fucking war hero but nobody was allowed to know about it. He saved thousands of lives and his work was key in the development of computer science: just think how much we all owe him. Such a great man deserves to be portrayed by a great actor.

The story of Alan Turing can be seen as both a triumph for Britain and part of its shameful history. For years it was kept secret that one of our greatest mathematicians helped crack the enigma code and bring World War II to an early end. Not so secret is the fact that, in 1952, Alan Turing was arrested and charged with gross indecency on account of his homosexuality. After spending a year taking drugs that chemically castrated him, Turing took his own life in 1954. One of the most important men in one of the biggest conflicts this country has been a part of was only provided with a posthumous royal pardon in 2013. You’d be an idiot if you didn’t think all of that was a fucking disgrace.
A sentiment that is clearly shared by the team behind The Imitation Game. This isn’t the first attempt to dramatise Turing’s story but it is by far the best. With a script by Graham Moore that is loosely based on Andrew Hodges book, Alan Turing: The Enigma, the film explores three key timelines in Turing’s life: his miserable time a boarding school; his time in Hut 8 at Bletchley Park; and his post-war conviction. Moore’s script has the difficult task of balancing the more intimate aspects of the story with a massive world conflict. Thankfully, he is more than up to the task and has created a script that is simple and clear enough to explain the intricate details, whether technical or personal. The narrative expertly weaves between these timelines and creates a fucking great biopic/drama/thriller thing.
Norwegian director, Morten Tyldum, has produced a good looking and sleek film here with a cast of fucking amazing actors. However, it is pretty much down to outstanding leading performance by Benedict Cumberbatch that this film resonates so much. The film doesn’t exactly wow but Cumberbatch’s performance is incredible: something I was delighted to see described as his “most Cumberbatchian character yet”. It’s a little like Sherlock Holmes meets Sheldon Cooper but it works. Whilst I can’t speak for the accuracy of the portrayal, the actor fully embraces the role and gives a sympathetic and haunting portrait of Turing. Early in the film, Turing asks a police officer (Rory Kinnear) “Are you paying attention?”. Cumberbatch spends the rest of the film ensuring that you can’t help but do just that.
The Imitation Gameintroduced me to a new sensation – not instantly hating everything Keira Knightley does. Her portrayal of Joan was considered and controlled. Fighting against the sexist attitude of the time, Joan is strong, clever and thoroughly British. If ever there was a role hand-made for Knightley this would probably be it… even if she is just too fucking beautiful. Of course, I do have to agree with those people who are criticising the amount of time given over to their friendship. Joan was, at one time, engaged to Turing but their friendship is presented as much more significant than was probably true.
For a film so concerned with Turing’s homosexuality it does everything it can to hide it. Now I’m not suggesting we need to sex Turing up or anything. I’m not trying to say that audiences were crying out for some of kind of cryptologists after dark smut. If there is a demand then I’m sure Channel 4 can work out some sort of deal for a Russell T Davies late night special. However, it would have been better if there was more than one memorable reference to the fact that Turing liked dudes. It was the fucking point after all.
There has been already been a massive fucking deal made about the inaccuracies within the script and it is safe to say that The Imitation Game takes a bit of a Downton Abbey approach to historical fact. There can be no doubt that parts of the tale have been amped up for Hollywood, particularly with references to Soviet spy John Cairncross, who Turing would never have met, and a crazy sub-plot involving MI6 planting information for the Russians. Then we have the massively coincidental, convenient and super-emotional drama surrounding fellow code-breaker Peter Hilton’s brother being subject of an imminent German attack. Suffice it to say, Peter Hilton had no brother.
However, I don’t think The Imitation Gameever set out to create an in-depth biography documenting Turing’s life. It simply used him as a symbol for a problem that cursed British society for such a long time. In a similar way to 12 Years a Slavelast year, The Imitation Gamereintroduces a modern audience to a not so ancient practice of homophobia that destroyed people’s lives and still infects society today. So yes, the makers do take some liberties with Turing’s life and make him more a a Hollywood hero. He needed the additional conflict and struggle to make his inevitable fall seem even worse.

The Imitation Gameis not a film about cryptanalyst Alan Turing but a film that uses him to on behalf of gay rights. Turing was a man with a great man with a huge amount of potential. Unfortunately, Turing’s successes were kept secret for so many years and his continued greatness was derailed thanks to some misguided laws. It is a story not just about this war hero but about the injustice that he received once his work had saved so many lives: about a man who changed the world and the world that destroyed him.

Coriolanus (2011)

Brian Cox, drama, Gerard Butler, Ralph Fiennes, Shakespeare, tragedy, Vanessa Redgrave, war

Ralph Fiennes has a deep history with this particular Shakespeare play after his much appraised portrayal of the title character about ten years ago. With the help of screenwriter John Logan (GladiatorHugo) and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker), Fiennes offers us an exciting modern adaptation of the little known and little loved play. Modern adaptations of Shakespeare are not uncommon but there is always the danger that the connection between the plot and the updated setting will start to wear a little thin. For example, I was lucky enough to see Michael Sheen in Hamlet at the Young Vic last Christmas. Not only was he amazingly talented, mesmerising and rather beautiful (in a crazy way) but the adaptation itself was pretty exciting. The action was set in a mental asylum where Claudius and Gertrude were medical staff and Hamlet their patient. This worked incredibly well until the plot demanded that the staff organise a deadly fencing match between their patients. Obviously there needs to be a suspension of disbelief but the scene did stand out as a bit much. When plays deal with plots set in the Elizabethan period there is bound to be a certain amount that doesn’t quite translate. The trick is making sure these elements blend in enough that it doesn’t really matter.

For Fiennes’ masterpiece, the centurions of Ancient Rome have been replaced with modern soldiers armed with the AK-47s and running the risk of getting caught up in impressive explosions.  Logan’s script cuts down the lengthy tragedy down to two hours of classic drama and heart-stopping action. It is a film that shows the necessary appreciation to its source whilst avoiding the potential trap of a straightforward and traditional production. Logan includes as much of Shakespeare’s language as is possible and all of the key scenes have been given due care and attention. Filmed on location in Belgrade, the costumes, props and cinematography could be taken straight out of most modern war films. Gone is the city of Rome and the action is placed in a modern Balkan like state. The political focus of this play fits well into the turbulent times we have all seen in the past few years. In Logan’s skilled hands and with a certain amount of help from modern scenes we are all familiar with (smart-phones, internet streamed assassinations and satellite news) this Ancient Roman tragedy becomes a modern tale of the struggle for power and respect. For my part, I enjoyed the way that certain conversations that organically would have taken place between Roman citizens were transformed into news items and interviews with experts. I can understand the reviewers who found it a little too tongue-in-cheek but I relished the cameo by Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow and firmly believe he should do all news items in Shakespearean language from now on.  It is amazing how easily the play fits into this setting and it only goes to remind us how relevant the issues Shakespeare raised 400 years ago. The place which calls itself Rome could indeed be anywhere and the action sequences and rolling news could well have been seen on any news channel in recent times. 


Thanks mostly to the fantastic work of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd who most recently worked on the Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker. As expected from Ackroyd he places the camera in the centre of the action creating scenes of shockingly realistic and immediate brutality. The action sequences themselves firmly place the play within a modern setting. Ackroyd is the main man when it comes to putting the shaky cam in the thick of the action. It sets us up for some exquisite visuals and effects as Coriolanus and his men advance on their enemy. Shakespeare’s own Rambo dispenses his brutal punishment on those who are posing a threat to his city and he walks out to meet his adversary covered in their blood. Fiennes has certainly ensured that, visually at least, his soldier is the centre of attention. In this modern setting Fiennes has transformed the Roman soldier into a Nineties Balkan warlord like figure. There is a striking image towards the end of the film when Coriolanus, with his shaved head and army fatigues, accepts his wife and mother whilst slouching in his chair surrounded by gunmen with his legs splayed. It is the ultimate sign of his manly arrogance and sums up his actions throughout the film. He is a soldier, a killer and he demands the respect that comes with it. Fiennes has never been one of my favourite actors but he shows a certain amount of restraint here but plays the title character with his usual intensity.

One of Fiennes’ greatest decisions was to surround himself with a supporting cast made up of truly wonderful actors. Despite placing himself in the key role, Fiennes takes a step back and allows seasoned performers like Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox do what they do best. Unsurprisingly, Redgrave gives us the standout performance of the entire film. In a case of life imitating art, this is a film that is dominated by Redgrave’s Volumnia, in much the same way as Coriolanus himself is ruled by his overbearing and belligerent mother. It is the scenes where we see mother and son together that really bring this film to life. The pair both flourish in their roles and Fiennes is able to allow Redgrave to show us all why she’s one of our finest actresses. Her performance is so mind-blowing that, at times, it would be possible to believe that Shakespeare first wrote the role with her in mind. In a more understated role, the ever reliable Brian Cox plays silver-tongued politician Menenius and gives us another exceptional performance. He doesn’t draw attention in the way that Redgrave is able to thanks to the dominance of her character but he is on hand to offer us a careful and considered performance.

To anyone who went into this film doubting Gerard Butler’s Shakespearean potential: shame on you. Yes, Butler has made some questionable, romantic-comedy based choices recently and is more of an action hero than a tragic one but he is no stranger to Shakespeare and this play in particular (having been cast in Steven Berkoff’s 1996 stage production). Taking up the role of Coriolanus’ adversary Tullus Aufidius, he gives a confident performance. Shakespeare’s words seem natural coming from the mouth of a man who is more used to playing action men of much fewer words. He plays the brutal Aufidius as a dangerous savage and worthy opponent to the mighty Coriolanus. The men have met each other in battle several times and the fact that he has never manage to best the General is a constant source of shame and anger for the beardy and brooding Aufidius. Fiennes’ casting decision may have been slightly bizarre considering the wealth of Shakespearean actors out there but, after his first dramatic scene, there is little doubt that Butler is the perfect actor to update the Volscian commander into a modern action man that would sit just as easily in the type of film Butler may usually be seen in.

What Fiennes has attempted to do with his directorial debut is create an adaptation of a play he is undoubtedly passionate about that will resonate with ardent Shakespeare fans and those who would normally find the Bard a little over facing. In some respects that is my major problem with the film. It doesn’t seem very complete or self-assured. The action elements and the Shakespearean dialogue fight for supremacy and often find themselves at odds with one another. Logan has obviously pared back the play to make it more cinema friendly but I can’t help but feel that more should have been made of Shakespeare’s words. Unfortunately, this film has not been handled correctly. The visual aspects, whilst stunning, don’t always work in harmony with some of the issues that are at the heart of the original play. Coriolanus may have contained the greatest number of battles of all the plays, but violence and war were never the major focus. This is a play about the character himself and the problems of mixing military might with political power. The greatest moments come when Coriolanus comes face to face with his mother and her plans for his future in politics. It is the politics of the family and the emotional and psychological elements that demand the floor but they are often partly overshadowed by the generic action movie imagery. What we have is a fitting debut in the director’s chair for Ralph Fiennes but it is far from being a perfect production. 

War Horse (2012)

Benedict Cumberbatch, drama, fucking magic horse, review, stage, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hiddleston, unintentionally funny, war

Before I even saw this film I objected to it. It’s kind of sad that Hollywood believes the only way to show a modern audience the true horror of the First World War is through the story of a boy and his horse. I mean the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth managed to keep all things equine out of it and still be an emotional fucking rollercoaster. I don’t think there’s anything that can be added to the horror of the real life events by putting a horse into the equation Especially when you don’t have the book’s ability to give the horse a voice or the amazing puppetry of the stage show to justify it. Still, I decided to watch it because, you know, Tom Hiddleston’s face is in it. And I’d watch anything that gave that a starring role.

Spielberg attempts to play the film as realistically as is possible for a narrative revolving around what, essentially, becomes a fucking magical horse. A horse that survives certain death through a mass of coincidences and a ridiculous amount of good luck. The film’s narrative begins in the horse, Joey’s, home in Devon where he is trained by Albert (Jeremy Irvine), the son of a wounded ex-soldier struggling to keep his farm afloat. The partnership between boy and horse is torn apart when war breaks out and Joey is sold to become a part of the war effort. What follows is his adventures through war-torn France where the horse moves between the British and German camps with an almost pleasant stop gap as a young French girl’s pet.

Producing a film from the point of view of a horse without the use of any type of voice-over is problematic. No matter how many fantastic stunts the horse can perform it is always just going to be a horse. Joey will never be able to react to the situations he finds himself in. The best we can hope for is that he stays in shot long enough to get the scene finished. This means that the main emotional emphasis within Joey’s story is placed upon the people he meets on the way. The acting is, for the most part, fantastic but, ultimately, this isn’t the story of the German soldiers, the French farmer or the Geordie private. This is Joey’s story. There is no real time to get engrossed in the human stories because they have to be wrapped up quickly in order to move Joey’s plot forward. It is a waste of such great talent and potential drama.

That is not to say that there are not moments of genius within the film itself. Spielberg is celebrated for his ability to create spectacular cinematic moments and there are some stunning single sequences that really do stand out. The most obvious being the cavalry charge taken from the point of view of the young Captain Nicholls, wonderfully portrayed by Tom Hiddleston. The camera focuses on his face as the young man comes to realise the devastating consequences of the fighting. It is a harrowing and truly emotional moment. There are other single Spielbergian visuals that provide moments of brilliance in what is otherwise a lame beast of a film. Take for example the stunning entrance of a character shown through his reflection in Joey’s eye. Then we have the scene towards the end of the film where a German and a British soldier come together in the middle of No Man’s Land to save the trapped horse. It is a scene that seems to sum up the whole film in managing to be both utterly preposterous and thoroughly entertaining.

That’s the main problem with this film; it has dual personalities. It doesn’t quite know whether it is a hard-hitting war film or a Disneyesque animal fantasy. The bi-polar narrative flits between moments of utter devastation and the constant reminders that Joey is a “miraculous” horse. The repeated emphasis on this special quality has the same effect that saying a single word over and over will have. By the end of the film, it has completely lost any meaning and becomes an unintentionally humorous plot point. To be honest, I laughed my way through this film. I doubt Spielberg would have approved. War Horse lacks any real dramatic punch thanks to its classification as a family film. Spielberg is always skirting close to the violence of war but, because it cannot be shown, the viewer remains detached from the human casualties. The cavalry scene is never able to reach the height of its emotional argument thanks to the fact that Spielberg is unwilling to show death on screen. Instead it is alluded to with cuts between the loud and furious charge with silent, blurry images of riderless horses galloping off into the trees. Rather than finding it harrowing, I found it fucking funny.

It was always going to be difficult to suggest the mindless violence that defined the war without being able to show the loss of young lives on screen. We have a film that is focused on the survival of its animal star instead of the loss of its supporting human cast. Therefore, the deaths come thick and fast but have little, if any, emotional impact. From a director who gave us the gritty realism of warfare in Saving Private Ryan, War Horse becomes nothing more than Homeward Bound 3: Lost in No Man’s Land.