Suite Française

Suite Française

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Dir: Saul Dibb; Wri: Saul Dibb, Matt Charman; Pro: Romain Bremond, Andrea Cornwell, Michael Kuhn, Xavier Marchand; DOP: Edouard Grau; Ed: Chris Dickens; Mus: Rael Jones. Cast: Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas, Matthias Schoenaerts, Sam Riley, Ruth Wilson, Margot Robbie

 

A soapy wartime yarn elevated by a handsome production and some strong performances, Suite Française cannot, by definition, capture what makes Irène Némirovsky’s source novel such an intriguing proposition. Written during the Nazi occupation of France but left incomplete at the time of Némirovsky’s death in Auschwitz in 1942, Suite Française was completed posthumously and published in 2004. The novel’s unique provenance has little bearing on its plot, though, which has been streamlined here into a familiar, but mildly engrossing, story of forbidden love.

 

Michelle Williams takes the central role of Lucile, a young woman who lives with her frosty mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas) in a small French village, at the beginning of the Nazi occupation. When the women are forced to accommodate a German soldier, Bruno (Matthias Schoenaerts) in their home, an unlikely secret romance blossoms, leading to assorted melodramatic ramifications. Williams has a natural subtlety that was genuinely affecting in her breakthrough role in Brokeback Mountain (2004), and has served her well in her two collaborations with Kelly Reichardt. Here, her reserved, watchful quality brings some much needed shading to the thinly written character of Lucile. There is, however, a distinct lack of spark between Williams and Schoenarts, leaving the plot’s engine sputtering. Schoenarts certainly looks the part of a paperback romantic hero, but the script’s insistence on presenting Bruno simply as a good man in a bad situation are bland at best and disingenuous at worst, and leave the character less neutral than neutered.

 

The tone is generally old-fashioned, with the crisp British accents in which the French villagers communicate evoking – with a certain charm – the Warner Bros. pot-boilers of the 1940s. Director Saul Dibb, who made his debut with the inner-city gang drama Bullet Boy (2004), deploys a more contemporary sensibility only fleetingly, and usually in scenes of action and violence. An early air-raid sequence is terrifically handled, cleverly presenting the open air and sunshine of the French countryside as a source of terror, while brief glimpses of executions and interrogations stand out starkly against the curiously cosy tone of the film. These moments aside, one feels that Suite Française may play better on television, its mild intrigues and lovingly rendered period trappings seeming a perfect fit for a Sunday evening BBC drama.

 

Of the supporting cast, Scott Thomas is on autopilot mode, but still walks off with most of her scenes. Others, such as Eileen Atkins and Ruth Wilson, are given less to do, while rising star Margot Robbie is prominently billed, but has just a handful of lines as a rustic wench. That the part registers at all is more down to Robbie’s own peculiar blend of carnality and innocence than to anything in the script. Although the overall pacing is fairly smooth, the underused cast and truncated sub-plots suggest that the film has either been cut down from a much longer running time, or has been substantially reshaped in editing. Further evidence of tinkering comes in the form of a needless voice-over that is presumably intended to underscore Lucile’s emotional awakening, but has the unintended effect of making Williams’ understated central performance seem less expressive than it is.

David Turpin

15A (See IFCO for details)
107 minutes

Run All Night is released 13th March 2015

 

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Focus

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DIR: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa • WRI: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa • PRO: Denise Di Novi • DOP: Xavier Grobet • ED: Jan Kovac • MUS: Nick Urata • DES: Beth Mickle • CAST: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Adrian Martinez, Gerald McRaney

 

As one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, Will Smith has dominated the box office for over twenty years. Grossing over $6 billion global sales, thanks to action blockbusters such as Independence Day (1996), Men in Black (1997) and I Am Legend (2007), Smith’s name on the billboard is generally regarded as a sure-fire guarantee to worldwide commercial success. After a four-year hiatus from the screen and a string of subsequent miscalculations, including critical catastrophe After Earth (2013) and a bewildering cameo in Winter’s Tale (2014), Will Smith appears to be in a somewhat acting void, in need of a cinematic masterstroke to regain the dizzying heights of former box office glory.

 

Focus is a romantic crime caper starring Smith as seasoned con artist Nicky Spurgeon. Jess Brennan (Margo Robbie) is the young and beautiful criminal novice who persuades a reluctant Nicky to teach her the tricks of his trade. She joins Nicky’s amoral empire of fraudsters, swindling their way through the obscenely wealthy, until Nicky realises their suppressed romantic feelings are a liability and unceremoniously dumps her. Three years later, as Nicky is about to undertake his riskiest scam, they meet up by chance in Buenos Aires and Nicky soon discovers he may have taught Jess more than he can handle.

 

Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love.) Focus is a slick and polished fast-paced romp, which oozes sensuality and decadence, drips of glamour and excess and seeps in self-indulgence and extravagance. Underneath its lustrous veneer however, lies a series of convoluted entanglements, an overinflated and well-worn plot and a narrative that remains too faithful to the conventions of its genre, it ends up on the whole, a rather predictable and messy affair. The film throws the kitchen sink of lacklustre sub-plots into the narrative without much consideration for originality or execution and ironically, Focus ultimately becomes a film that is afraid to take risks.

 

Amidst the array of tomfoolery, the bubbling romance between Smith and Robbie has the potential to sedate the film’s hyperactivity and offer a respite from the myriad of capering. Despite the evident on-screen chemistry between the two leads, this romantic element is unbearably teased out and the shenanigans keep coming at such a magnificent velocity, that by the time the romantic narrative has limped towards the final act, any remnants of a love affair has lost its appeal and gloss.

 

Regardless of its gleaming production and costume design, smooth technical style and frisky musical score, Focus is largely seductive because Smith and Robbie are the seducers. It is a testament to Smith’s experience and skill that is he able to maintain a semblance of credibility and finds the correct balance between poise, charisma and boyish vulnerability, adapting to the script’s strained meanderings without descending into farce or caricature.

 

After her memorable breakthrough performance in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), the role of Jess Brennan could be viewed as rather regressive for Margot Robbie. Although she plays the part of the criminal ingénue-turned-accomplished fraudster with exquisite style, the voyeuristic emphasis on her flawless beauty leaves a void in the development of her character and any emotional intelligence she attempts to display is thwarted by the overt emphasis on her physical allure. Devoid of Scorsese’s black comedy to ignite the character, sees Robbie hovering in limbo, neither vindictive enough to be the archetypal femme fatale nor vapid enough to be mere eye candy.

 

Focus is a crime caper that commits to such a formulaic narrative it struggles to breathe new life into the genre and severely fails to mark its own identity. The film is imbued with just enough energy and commitment from Smith and Robbie to keep it above water and although we have seen Smith do funny and charming countless times and Focus far from equals his previous work, his performance has enough respectability to at least see him move in the right direction.

Dee O’Donoghue

 

15A (See IFCO for details)
104 minutes

Focus is released 27th February 2015

 

Focus  – Official Website

 

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