Crimson Peak (US-Canada 2015)

Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wiakowska

Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) and Edith (Mia Wasikowska), the potential couple at the centre of a gothic romance.

Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak is a companion piece for his early films The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo, Spain-Mexico 2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, Spain-Mexico-US 2006) and the film he helped to produce, El orfanato (The Orphanage 2007). But whereas these films combined the ‘gothic romance’ with a Spanish Civil War story via various rich metaphors, del Toro’s new film is essentially a re-working of a classic gothic romance narrative set in the early Edwardian period. Compared to the earlier films Crimson Peak is even more beautifully conceived and designed but unfortunately does not carry the same powerful political message. It does, however, offer a worthwhile commentary on the gothic romance and the presentation of ‘phantasms’.

The narrative involves an English ‘gentleman’ and his sister, Thomas and Lucille Sharpe (played by Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain), who visit Buffalo NY where Thomas seeks investment funds from the banker Carter Cushing. Thomas wants to build a mechanical extractor for the deposits of red clay on which his family property sits in the wilds of Cumberland. The blood-red clay is valuable for firing high-quality tiles but is also threatening the foundations of the great old house and seeping through the ground like blood. Thomas and Lucille leave America without investment funds but with Cushing’s daughter Edith (Mia Wasikowska) as the new Mrs Sharpe. They return to the great gothic mansion where the rest of the narrative plays out.

Edith begins to explore the gothic house . . .

Edith begins to explore the gothic house . . .

. . . in which there is often somebody watching – here Jessica Chastain.

. . . in which there is often somebody watching – here Jessica Chastain as Lucille.

Once in the UK, Crimson Peak becomes more focused on a three-way power struggle in the classic gothic house with strict colour coding of costumes and fantastic attention to mise en scène, lighting and cinematography. The background to the production suggests that del Toro had been trying to make the film for a long time, but that he hung on until he found backers prepared to let him have the $50 million that he knew would be needed to create the spectacle that he wanted to create. This passion for the project is evident in the number of promotional videos that accompanied the film’s release, including one in which del Toro himself takes us through aspects of set design and the SFX needed to create his ‘phantasms’ – creations that are part digital effect and part traditional effects work (see the clip below).

I went to see Crimson Peak on a large multiplex screen, primarily to immerse myself in the production design and the richness of del Toro’s imagination. I wasn’t sure what kind of narrative to expect and I’m still not sure why I didn’t enjoy it more. Everything about the production is first class, including the three central performances. Del Toro’s ideas are gloriously realised in the set and I enjoyed the presentation of the phantasms. The film was shot in Canada and the one feature that didn’t work for me was the presentation of landscape. The mystery is why del Toro and his co-writer Matthew Robbins chose ‘Cumberland’ as the location for the house – and then presented it as an isolated house on a featureless snow-covered moor, so that it could really have been anywhere. There is a strong sense of landscape in British gothic stories set in the late 19th and into the 20th century. Think of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Hitchcock’s Rebecca or the more recent The Woman in Black. The landscape doesn’t have to be ‘factually correct’ but it should resonate with the story in some way. I seem to remember that del Toro shot in Northern Ireland on the Devil’s Causeway for Hellboy 2, so he has had some experience of the possibilities. Perhaps I’m just complaining because I want to see Cumbrian landscapes – I don’t worry about the Spanish locations in the earlier films, but that’s because they do seem to be part of the overall presentation of the Civil War.

Crimson Peak didn’t find the large audience that might have justified its production spend. I think that’s partly because gothic melodrama/romance is currently out of favour and is only acceptable as part of a package in which the potential horror story is strong enough on its own. By mixing the two in the way it is done here – appealing to two different audiences – del Toro has not really satisfied either. I suspect that the focus on the production design has meant that the script received less attention than it should have done. Thinking back, the ingredients are there for a great melodrama – there are narrative elements about childhood and parenting that might have come from a Wilkie Collins novel – but somehow they don’t cohere.

Perhaps Crimson Peak will become a cult film through theatrical revivals – I’m glad I saw it on a big screen.

Guillermo del Toro introduces one feature of his elaborate studio set:

. . . and here’s another:

Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish-set films are discussed in Chapter 4 of The Global Film Book.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (US 2013)

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

Attending this screening with Rona felt a little like a cultural studies day out. There was a big audience for a 4 pm showing in the Hebden Bridge Picture House – young teenagers and some parents and grandparents. I didn’t count them but my impression was that the audience was more female than male. This was a different experience to watching part 1 of the franchise in an early evening show in Cineworld with the usual dozen people in a 200-250 seat cinema. Since then the franchise has really taken off and Jennifer Lawrence has become the star of the moment.

Our interest in the film is principally in terms of a social phenomenon. I remember enjoying Part 1 but finding it insubstantial apart from Ms Lawrence and the presence of Donald Sutherland, an old favourite. At the beginning of part 2, I realised that after 18 months I had forgotten most of the other characters (and most of the plot details) and it took me a while to get up to speed. It’s a long film at 146 mins and although never bored I did find myself reflecting on the nature of blockbusters. Half the film is a variation on the first film with more sophisticated games (with much more spent on effects) and the other half deals with the politics of preparing the contestants. This half has moved on and allowed some development of the theme of resistance in the fascist state that created the games. So, on the one hand we have a film that increasingly resembles the experience of playing a game (but I’m not a gamer and I might be reading this incorrectly?) and on the other at least the possibility of some kind of political comment. Critics and audiences have seemingly found this irresistible since the film is one of the biggest box office successes of the year with over $800 million worldwide. Half of that comes from North America suggesting that the international appeal is slightly less (the ‘normal’ split is more like 37:63). I’m not sure how to read that and it may be something worth investigating. Like the Twilight franchise, The Hunger Games is not a major studio release and the international market may be a harder sell for Lionsgate.

There can’t be too much doubt that much of the film’s success is based on the performance and star persona of Jennifer Lawrence. A genuine female action hero is hard to achieve. All the comic book female heroes seem to end up in some kind of  fetish gear outfit like Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, in leather like Kate Beckinsale in Underworld or in hot pants like Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. Ms Lawrence does wear a wet suit in Hunger Games but her appearance is much more like a triathlete in the Olympics with a body for fighting not posing. She looks terrific without make-up but she can still carry off the twirl in a fantastic wedding dress. She’s a young woman with a great mind, a great body and a healthy attitude, no wonder she is a potential role model. She carries the film but I did wonder, sitting amongst a large audience, exactly how they were interacting with her screen presence. I was surprised that I didn’t feel more of the excitement of the audience. Instead there was the stillness of rapt attention.

I would concur with the critics who see this as a highly competent directorial effort by Francis Lawrence (perhaps helped by Simon Beaufoy’s addition to the writing team). The money is on the screen and the addition of Philip Seymour Hoffman is a major plus. The ending of the film is well-handled, setting up the next in the franchise. I think, however, that the ‘political’ theme has been over-hyped and I did find most of the other characters rather bland and unmemorable. I know the film isn’t aimed at me and the target audience won’t have seen many of the earlier films referenced – or have the same bored response to a satire on reality TV. I excuse Jena Malone from the bland tag. I recognised her from Donnie Darko and she injected a bit of extra life. Otherwise Jennifer Lawrence commands the screen.

One one trail for the film I spotted a typo in the director’s name which was listed as ‘Frances’ Lawrence. That did make me wonder why the film doesn’t have a female director – who might have a clearer idea of how to exploit the star power of Jennifer Lawrence in even more productive ways for the benefit of a young female audience?

Gravity (US/UK 2013)

Sandra Bullock – alone in space?

Sandra Bullock – alone in space?

Gravity works with audiences – in industry terms it has ‘legs’. Although it was released in early November, it still pulled in a healthy audience at the 3D screening I attended this week. It also works as a technical exercise in creating a ‘realist’ representation of the work of astronauts on a space station in orbit above the earth. (I am not commenting on the scientific ‘truth’ of the operations depicted, rather on the sense of ‘being there’ experienced by the audience.)

Alfonso Cuarón and his DoP Emmanuel Lubezki are masters of the long take, though when bodies are floating through space and cameras are ‘virtual’ in the world of CGI, this means something rather different than it did for Max Ophuls or Jean Renoir. Cuarón is certainly ‘in control’ since as well as directing, he produced the film, co-wrote the script with his son Jonás and co-edited it with Mark Sanger. Perhaps he might have relinquished one of those roles and focused a little more on the script and possibly the casting? The film works for me as a thriller and I was squirming in my seat with the tension I felt. It also did make me think about the prospect of slow death if I was ever cast adrift in space. The 3D generally worked, although I found the objects being thrown at the audience became too distracting after a while. The three flaws for me were: (1) the dreadful music, (2) George Clooney and (3) the ‘re-birthing’ and spiritual/religious symbolism of the last third of the film.

I can see that each of these ‘flaws’ could be attributed to the commercial constraints facing Cuarón. I’m sure that I remember early discussions about this not being a ‘studio picture’ but instead some kind of ‘super indy’. With a budget of $100 million and a massive international roll-out, this seems like a blockbuster to me and therefore in need of various conventional touches. Clooney is a likeable star with a ‘big’ persona but the role in Gravity would have been better filled by a lesser-known actor who would not have drawn attention away from Sandra Bullock (an effective, restrained performance, I think). Space would be more ‘other’ and even more terrifying with only the ‘natural’ sounds of the space station or the diegetic music on the intercom.

The re-birthing symbolism is more problematic – Sandra Bullock is seen several times getting out of her spacesuit (like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis?) and coiling up in a foetal position. I guess much of the resonance of these scenes comes from 2001? My concern is that these images come as part of what is a general slide into a ‘Hollywood ending’ to the film. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but it did seem to me to be disappointing for a film which seems to promise something different. I’ve seen Gravity referred to as a ‘science fiction film’ but this does not seem helpful – action thriller seems the best description (Speed with Sandra Bullock would make an interesting comparison.)

Alfonso Cuarón showed in his best film, Y tu mamá también (Mexico/US 2001) that he is capable of subverting the mainstream and that he can work effectively with genre repertoires as in Children of Men (US/UK/Japan 2006). Of course, Children of Men proved a difficult sell to audiences and dented Cuarón’s ‘bankability’ after his earlier success with a Harry Potter film. Gravity has restored his status, so something with more bite next time?

Alfonso Cuarón is a transnational filmmaker working in Mexico, the US or across Europe on international projects. I see that IMDB lists Gravity as simply a ‘US’ production. In fact it was co-produced with David Heyman in the UK (his company also co-produced the Harry Potter movies) and most of the studio work was completed at Shepperton. UK crews and facilities deserve some credit for the technical virtuosity of the film.

Prisoners (US 2013)

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Dover (Hugh Jackman)

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Dover (Hugh Jackman)

There are two reasons for featuring what is ostensibly a Hollywood movie on this blog (apart from its surprising success and controversial readings by critics). First, it’s the product of a creative team in which several of the principal crew members (director, composer, cinematographer, designers etc.) are non-American. Secondly, its length (153 mins) and outline story of a double abduction of young girls in a small town at Thanksgiving suggests possible links to the current cycle of ‘Nordic Noir’ films and long-form television narratives.

Writer Aaron Guzikowski is best known for the Hollywood remake of the Icelandic film Reykyavik-Rotterdam as Contraband starring Mark Wahlberg – and Wahlberg is one of the exec producers of this film. Prisoners was a script that was well known around Hollywood for several years with various attempts to get it into production before Denis Villeneuve was attached. He is the Québécois director of Incendies (France-Canada 2010), one of our ‘films of the year’ on this blog. It’s been a remarkable year for Villeneuve with two major releases, both starring Jake Gyllenhaal – Enemy (Canada-Spain 2013) is the second.

So does Prisoners look and feel any different from a standard Hollywood thriller of this type? The opening scene of a deer shoot in the snow seems like a nod towards The Deerhunter in establishing the Pennsylvania setting but from then on the narrative becomes quite claustrophobic (partly because of the decision to shoot in 1:1.85 rather than ‘Scope). The long running-time and the focus on only a limited number of characters allows the story to develop slowly and in this sense it feels quite different to a Danish serial like Forbrydelsen (The Killing). With outdoor scenes dominated by extreme weather (heavy rain and slush) photographed by Roger Deakins and with a mystery element, the ‘feel’ seemed to me closer to the Icelandic crime thriller Jar City.

Outline (no spoilers)

Two families, the Dovers and the Birches are spending Thanksgiving Day together but alarm bells ring when the two youngest children go missing and are treated as victims of an abduction. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) leads the hunt for them and is extremely aggressive towards police detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) after his arrest of the chief suspect (Paul Dano), a man with obvious learning difficulties. Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) is much more reluctant than Dover to take the law into his own hands. The events which follow include several mistakes in the investigation and questionable behaviour by those involved. The ending of the film is ambiguous in one crucial respect.

Commentary

I found the film to be always engaging and the running-time was not a problem. I can see that there are some plotting issues and possible implausibilities but that’s common for films of this kind. Overall I thought that Villeneuve handled his actors and used the locations very effectively to create tension and to maintain audience involvement. The main weakness of the script was that the ‘wives and mothers’ (Maria Bello and Viola Davis) had little to do (like Terrence Howard). By contrast, Melissa Leo as the ‘aunt’ of the Paul Dano character was extremely effective. But the other two older Dover and Birch children were also fairly redundant as characters.

The central narrative offers us two major male characters played by Jackman and Gyllenhaal. Jackman has the ‘shouty’ role which necessarily requires a strong physical presence. Gyllenhaal plays Loki as an intense and obsessive man and uses what I can only describe as a method approach. Festooned in tattoos and with swept back gelled hair, a tightly-buttoned shirt and a compulsive blinking habit he is a striking but mostly quietly-spoken character. There are some particularly unhelpful remarks by the Guardian‘s Catherine Shoard on the paper’s video review show about the acting in the film. I think film students would find it useful to compare the two central performances.

None of the characters in the film is given a ‘backstory’. We don’t know why Loki behaves as he does. We just know he has a reputation for solving every case. All we know about Dover is that he is a self-employed handyman with a basement filled with stores in the event of a disaster. I don’t think we know what Birch does and the women don’t seem to have jobs – so it isn’t clear how the families are supported. In an early exchange, Dover tells his son that there isn’t enough income for a second vehicle (Dover drives a pick-up). What all this suggests is that we are meant to read the narrative at a much more symbolic level and audiences have certainly tried to do this. Variety has published a piece comparing the film’s representation of torture as a means of obtaining information unfavourably in a comparison with Zero Dark Thirty. Villeneuve handles these scenes well, I think. He can shock an audience while still being restrained. The IMDB bulletin board carries a debate about the film’s use of religious imagery. My knowledge of small town Pennsylvania is not very extensive but I think that the ‘community’ is intended to be Catholic and there are various quotes from The Lord’s Prayer etc. The film’s title is open to interpretation. Who are the ‘prisoners’? What kind of incarceration is it?

To return to the American/global sense of the narrative, I would say that there are enough similar Hollywood thrillers to make the film feel familiar. The film is technically a Hollywood product since the production company Alcon Entertainment have a distribution outlet in North America on a long term basis via Warner Bros. Outside North America, however, media sales are handled by Summit and the UK distributor is the Canadian conglomerate eOne. The success of the film has come during a very slack period with no blockbuster releases and it will be interesting to see if it maintains its No 1 position in the UK chart this weekend with some strong competition. In the meantime, I’d recommend the film mainly for Gyllenhaal’s performance (and Villeneuve’s direction). I’m really looking forward to Enemy.

The East (US/UK 2013)

Apparently 'spin the bottle' is popular in anarchist circles.

Apparently ‘spin the bottle’ is popular in anarchist circles.

The East is one of those films that tries to be ‘radical’ in a Hollywood context. It’s a Scott Free Production (Ridley Scott’s company with Tony Scott receiving a posthumous credit) released by Fox but generally discussed as coming  from its writer-director Zal Batmanglij and writer-star Brit Marling. The couple have already produced two earlier titles which I haven’t seen. This one didn’t work for me but it  is interesting in terms of its generic roots and some of its casting decisions.

Marling plays Sarah, an ex-FBI agent now working for a private intelligence/security organisation. Her task is to infiltrate an ‘eco-terrorist’ group called ‘The East’. The group organises ‘jams’ – stunts designed to extract vengeance in the biblical sense of ‘an eye for eye’ directed towards the owners and CEOs of corporations who have caused direct harm to communities through their commercial policies on pollution, (lack of) testing of products etc.

The scenario of police/’security’ officers on deep cover missions, often lasting several years, is news again in the UK at the moment and it is an interesting topic. But this fictional US story (though supposedly using some real news stories as material) is rather different in that the lead character seems able to leave the group and come back and operate with two separate identities. The film narrative draws on several older cycles of films from various genres, supplying plot lines and also characters and visualisations. I was reminded of scenes from Gattaca (the security company itself as a fortress – bland and corporate on the outside like the hospital in Coma). Much of the iconography of someone on the run/undercover around Washington DC is reminiscent of Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State. Not so much in plot terms but in its political implications the film reminds us of the cycle of paranoia thrillers from the early 1970s such as The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. Unfortunately, The East doesn’t carry the same disturbance factor for the audience.

‘The East’ is one of several separate ‘cells’ which are linked together. I didn’t really understand this and the politics of ‘anarchist’ groups is never properly represented or discussed. Crucially in terms of visualising the cell’s activities, The East appears to operate from a derelict house set in woodland somewhere on the Eastern seaboard. This gives the ‘community’ a ‘return to nature’ feel that one hand feels very traditional – the Thoreau-like sense of ‘real America’ – but also refers to Hollywood’s ideas about hippy communes, survivalist terrorists in the backwoods or perhaps survivors in some kind of post-apocalyptic dystopia. There is also a religious discourse that I have to confess I didn’t properly latch onto. Being ‘washed’ in the lake is a feature of being accepted by the group – as I read afterwards. I also didn’t understand what Sarah was doing all the time, but I read in other reviews that she is meant to be a committed Christian who listens to ‘Christian radio’ (I always wondered who listened to those stations or God TV – it seems a very unlikely pastime for an undercover agent). The most positive spin I can put on the woodland setting is that it reminded me of the final scenes of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 with the ‘rebels’ walking around the woods memorising books that have been burned in the outside world.

The big problem with the film is that the narrative form usually associated with this genre has only a few possible outcomes. The hero is usually either a counter-culture/radical character or a professional God-fearing American security officer. The latter can ‘win’ by closing down the terrorist cell, the former must die, get brainwashed or there must be a compromise that allows the corporate villains to be brought back into the capitalist fold. Hollywood can’t really countenance anything else. In this case Sarah’s character complicates the narrative in that she finds her own ‘third way’ of dealing with things. I won’t spoil the narrative development but it seemed naïve at best as a way of closing the narrative.

Ellen Page (left) and Brit Marling.

Ellen Page (left) and Brit Marling.

Ms Marling is clearly an intelligent woman who has written a strong female role for a thriller – but for me the star of the film should have been Ellen Page who is rather wasted in a smaller role. Having said that, Ms Page is very distinctive and doesn’t fade into the background well. Brit Marling’s Sarah goes undercover by lightening her hair but this means that she looks like she’s slumming it for most of the time and at the end of the film all I could think was that she looked ‘prissy’ in a skirt and blouse. I’m not sure why, but this seemed to be inappropriate in some way. But I don’t want to be too hard on the film. It is low-budget by Hollywood standards and has had only a limited release in the North America. In the UK it has got into multiplexes with 123 prints, just scraping into the Top 15.

The film is a US/UK production and from my perspective it is interesting that the other three main characters are played by a Canadian (Ellen Page), a Swede (Alexander Skarsgård) and a Yorkshireman (Toby Kebbell) – and very good they are too. I don’t think the film works but I’m pleased to see a real attempt to make this kind of film and I look forward to more films on topics like this.

The Girl (UK/Germany/South Africa 2012)

Toby Jones as Alfred Hitchcock and Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren

Toby Jones as Alfred Hitchcock and Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren

The first of the two recent Hitchcock films was broadcast on BBC2 on Boxing Day. Produced for HBO, The Girl focuses on the difficult relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and his new blonde star Tippi Hedren during the production of The Birds and Marnie during 1961-3. (The second film, Hitchcock, is released in the UK in February 2013 and deals with the making of Psycho in 1959.)

‘The Girl’ was the name Hitchcock (played in this case by Toby Jones) and his wife Alma (Imelda Staunton) gave to Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller). The script is by Gwyneth Hughes (an experienced UK TV writer) who drew on a book by Donald Spoto (Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and his Leading Ladies) which in turn refers to interviews given by Hedren herself. Hitchcock, a notorious prankster with a history of sexual repression, has been accused of ‘controlling’ Hedren and forcing her into situations in which he abused her with acts of psychological cruelty, sexual suggestion and possibly direct sexual assault. He had been married to Alma since 1926 and she is presented as partly complicit in casting Hedren, a former model with no previous feature roles, as ‘our girl’. Later in the narrative it is suggested that Alma was upset by her husband’s obsession with his star.

Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock in on the set of 'Marnie' (note that Hitchcock was slightly taller than Hedren, whereas Toby Jones is shorter than Sienna Miller)

Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock in on the set of ‘Marnie’ (note that Hitchcock was slightly taller than Hedren, whereas Toby Jones is shorter than Sienna Miller) (Image from the Ronald Grant Archive)

The lead performances in the film are fine but the actors face the problem that Hitchcock and Hedren were well-known public figures. Hitchcock is arguably the most famous film director of all time because he was visible on his TV show in the 1950s and also as promoter of his own films. Tippi Hedren starred in the two films, attracting both positive and negative responses. Despite excellent mimicry of Hitchcock’s vocal style and walk and the aid of prosthetics, Toby Jones doesn’t resemble the director and Sienna Miller doesn’t really try to become Tippi. (Miller is not unlike Hedren in appearance but her voice is quite different and she doesn’t have the same brittle quality that Hedren showed in her performances.) This is not a criticism of either actor, just a recognition of the difficulty of playing a ‘real person’ who is so well-known. The most successful biopics are often those where the actor strives to represent the personality more than the physical resemblance. For me the casting decisions on The Girl had a fatal impact on the representation of the relationship. I was already disturbed by the claims deriving from Spoto’s work. Hitchcock was clearly a man with an unusual personal history and his treatment of Hedren was almost certainly reprehensible. But Hitch and Alma are both dead while Tippi Hedren is still able to comment. She has confirmed the abusive behaviour in general terms but hasn’t herself given the details that form the central part of the film narrative’s appeal to some audiences. As a consequence, there is a form of audience frustration fuelled by the fact that Hitchcock fans are prone to see Hedren’s comments as a form of ‘payback’/revenge. Hitchcock kept Hedren to her contract after she refused to work on his next picture after Marnie. The comments on IMDB about The Girl seem to be mainly rage about Hitchcock’s behaviour or attacks on Hedren as a ‘bad actress’ who deserved to have her career ruined. (The script doesn’t properly explain the way the industry worked in the early 1960s but Hedren

I think that there are at least two other stories covering the same events which could have been presented. The first would be the story about how Hitchcock produced great performances from an actor with limited experience. We do get to see a scene in The Girl which is illuminating. Hitchcock is shown demonstrating to Hedren how to lower her voice and how to do as little as possible in order to create the meaning that he wants. Director Julian Jarrold constructs this scene very well and it is convincing. But there isn’t enough material like this and the film fails to explain the film production process for the lay audience. The second possible story is the long marriage (in 1962 of 36 years) of ‘Alfie’ and Alma. Again there is a scene in which Alma joins Hitch in a screening room to watch rushes but it is never properly explained that Alma was herself a film editor and scriptwriter (as ‘Alma Reville’) who had her own career before she devoted herself to supporting her husband and his work. By the 1960s she was no longer credited but it was still the case that Hitchcock sought her approval on every major artistic decision. Alma knew about his methods and how he treated actors. I’d have preferred a story about what went on between the couple during their work with Tippi Hedren – focusing on the work as much as the troubled relationship with Hedren.

Although I wouldn’t call myself a Hitchcock fan as such, I have seen most of his films – and Marnie is possibly my favourite Hitchcock. I think Tippi Hedren is riveting to watch in her role as Marnie Edgar. It is disturbing to think that to produce that performance she was mistreated by Hitchcock as The Girl suggests. However, I didn’t really learn anything new from The Girl and it left me dissatisfied. Interestingly, though, it did end with a title suggesting that Marnie has now been recognised as Hitchcock’s last masterpiece. I would agree with that, but many others wouldn’t and in commercial terms films like Torn Curtain and Frenzy were probably more successful.

Although a HBO production, The Girl is essentially a UK film shot partly in South Africa, I think.

I’m now looking forward to Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren as Alfie and Alma in Hitchcock. I suspect it will be a different kind of film.

Here is the original screen test for Tippi Hedren that is treated rather differently in The Girl.

Killing Them Softly (US 2012)

Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy as the rather gormless petty criminals in Killing Them Softly. Image © The Weinstein Company

I watched this with Nick in a nearly empty specialised cinema. It’s an intelligent and very well-made film but it doesn’t work for me and in some ways it seems indicative of the problems with contemporary American cinema. Box office has actually been OK in the UK during the opening week – I think that it has probably drawn bigger audiences in multiplexes (but there have also been walkouts according to IMDB so the second week drop-off will be interesting). On the other hand, the three big foreign language films this week had much higher screen averages. The film doesn’t open in North America until November 30th.

The source material is a George V. Higgins story. Higgins was a highly-admired crime novelist who was also a journalist, a high-ranking lawyer and an academic. The only other Higgins novel that was adapted for Hollywood was The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) with Robert Mitchum. 1970s Hollywood remains the benchmark for intelligent, grown-up popular cinema and Eddie Coyle is a lost gem, now hard to find on DVD. You can easily see what attracted Brad Pitt and Andrew Dominik to Higgins’ 1974 story Cogan’s Trade. Pitt plays Cogan, an efficient assassin brought in by ‘the mob’ to restore ‘order’ to the illegal poker schools which have protection. Cogan is professional, but everyone else in this scenario is either too stupid, too inexperienced or too fucked-up to function properly. This isn’t therefore an action film or a mystery. The film’s ending is inevitable from the opening scenes onward. Instead, this is a character study set in the sleazy world of crime that Higgins knew well from his experience as an attorney in Boston.

Dominik as screenwriter has chosen to shift the location from 1970s Boston to post-Katrina New Orleans and to make the timing very specific in the weeks around the presidential election of 2008. I confess that I didn’t twig that it was meant to be New Orleans. I didn’t notice any local references and now I think back there are no African-American characters or indications of Cajun culture – nothing in fact to suggest the crime world as envisaged by a writer like James Lee Burke and his New Orleans cop Dave Robicheaux. I’d just assumed that the film was set in some run-down Northern industrial city. Dominik presumably wants to suggest a kind of mythical setting, so the characters drive ancient models of cars. (I know nothing about US car models, but it was surprising to see the character played by Ray Liotta using a key to lock his car.) The music, by far the most pleasurable aspect of the film for me, is suitably ancient going back to at least the 1950s and probably the 1940s. A great Johnny Cash track is perhaps the most modern recording and Ketty Lester’s classic ‘Love Letters’ from 1962 the most evocative for me. Is Dominik trying to rival Scorsese’s use of popular music?

Given these touches, the heavy emphasis on speeches by Obama and George W. Bush on the financial crisis seems out of place. On several occasions, TV and radio broadcasts are presented high in the mix – in situations where they wouldn’t normally dominate – such as on a TV set in a bar or  in an airport arrivals hall. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps they do in the US, but even so, the use of these speeches seems clumsy and a final speech by Cogan/Pitt sums up the central message of the film in the closing scene. Many crime fiction fans are attracted to the genre because it expresses a political discourse beneath the action and the procedural elements, but usually it’s achieved in a more subtle way.

There’s something odd about a standard-length feature (97 minutes) that feels much longer – my attention drifted in some of the long conversations, especially the two between the Pitt character and another assassin/enforcer played by James Gandolfini as a washed-up alcoholic addicted to hookers. On the other hand, the slow pace allowed me to compare the performance styles of Brad Pitt and Scoot McNairy. In a scene at a bar, Pitt plays as film star, exuding confidence as a dominant character while McNairy ‘acts’ a role as the dumb criminal whimpering and almost crying. I like McNairy – though it took me a while to recognise him from his roles in Monsters and In Search of a Midnight Kiss. In this kind of film, I think the star should be in the downbeat role. The Pitt character Cogan is too much the dominant character.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle was directed by Peter Yates at a time when European directors were taking on American subjects (e.g. Karel Reisz (The Gambler, Who’ll Stop the Rain?), Jacques Deray (Outside Man), Ivan Passer (Cutter’s Way) etc. Perhaps the Antipodean Dominik would have been better off looking towards these guys rather than wandering into Tarantino territory? But the main production company behind this appears to be Brad Pitt’s Plan B. The weight of the Weinstein Company as distributor is also there, so rather than a straight studio movie this is one of those star-driven ‘super-indie’ films that gets sent to Cannes and then hits the multiplexes flexing its star power. It occurs to me that it also resembles Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive with Ryan Gosling – another well-made film that uncertainly bridged the mainstream/specialised cinema divide. Both films contain sequences that are much too violent for me, but Refn’s works better overall. None of my reservations about Killing Them Softly can detract from Andrew Dominik’s talent – I need to go back and look at The Assassination of Jesse James a second time.