Review: 1917

 

DIR: Sam Mendes• WRI: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns • DOP: Roger Deakins • ED: Lee Smith • DES: Rick Carter, Kevin Jenkins • PRO: Pippa Harris, Callum McDougall, Sam Mendes, Brian Oliver, Jayne-Ann Tenggren • MUS: Thomas Newman • DES: Dennis Gassner • CAST: George McKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Andrew Scott

Two British soldiers are tasked with crossing no man’s land in WWI to deliver a message that could save hundreds of lives. The film presents this entire mission as one nearly unbroken, continuous shot. This presentation is so central to the film that it deserves a bit of discussion. 

Imparting the illusion of a continuous shot over a 2-hour movie is an achievement on its own. The illusion is quite effective and allows you to travel with these men throughout the entirety of their journey, which breeds a sense of intimacy between viewer and character. It helps that the acting and set design are universally superb, meaning that the environment and characters remain continually engaging as the camera lingers on them. However, the continued use of long shots can be a bit of a double-edged sword when it comes to generating a sense of authenticity. On one hand, much like in real life, there’s no opportunity to cut away or jump ahead in time, lending a horrible authenticity in the context of a war film where we must sit with characters through every step of their encounters with abject horrors, creating an uncomfortable empathy with people in nearly unimaginable situations which wouldn’t be as powerfully felt if the film were more conventional in its filmic approach to this material. On the other hand, such long takes have a tendency to lay bare the elaborate choreography necessary to make them work. Actors fight, sprint, and converse in settings of magnificent beauty and horror, and the camera always finds just the right way to capture the most important part of each scene. This film is therefore a truly impressive balletic dance between actor and camera and I often found myself in awe of this choreography that the one-shot style simultaneously necessitates and, accidentally or not, emphasizes. As the shots linger on, it becomes increasingly obvious just how precise the movie is in making sure actors hit their marks and that the camera is in just the right place, focusing on just the right things, at just the right time, which unfortunately strips away much of the illusion that anything we’re seeing on screen has much real-world spontaneity. That does hurt a film like this where some of its effect relies on a sense of authenticity, of being in the trenches with these men. It starts to give the sense that you, the viewer, are in the safe hands of a very skilled director, but safety is not really conducive to feeling immersed in a battlefield narrative.

This bit of authenticity isn’t traded away for nothing though. That the film almost never cuts allows it to powerfully deliver on its most important emotional and thematic throughlines. This is a film that is intimately concerned with what motivation and repression are necessary to keep a person pushing forward in extreme circumstances. What can drive an otherwise normal person to run towards certain trauma and probable death, and what must they quickly put out-of-mind if they are to have the strength to keep running? The film can examine this theme so powerfully and in such a nuanced way precisely because we can see how these motivations subtly shift over the course of the film. We see every step of these characters reacting to their setting, a setting which smoothly transitions from beauty to horror and back around again. We therefore see not only these extremes of character motivation and of setting, but also what happens in the transition between extremes. There is an emotional authenticity here then because we do not just cut from important character moment to important character moment or from cause directly to effect, but instead see these characters react to, reflect on, and alter their behaviour within their situation in real time, which generates a fascinatingly nuanced form of environmental and character evolution. It helps as well that Sam Mendes’ directing and Roger Deakins’ cinematography so expertly lead us through and keep us engaged in every step of the emotional journey of these characters.

I suppose it’s up to each viewer whether or not this trade-off is worth it. For me, it was, ultimately. By the end, I was quite caught up in this film whose format brings about its biggest faults, but also emphasizes its towering strengths.

Sean O’Rourke

118′ 44″
16 (see IFCO for details)

1917 is released 10th January 2020

1917 – Official Website

 

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Review: Uncut Gems

DIR: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie • WRI: Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie • DOP: Darius Khondji • ED: Ronald Bronstein, Benny Safdie • DES: Rick Carter, Kevin Jenkins • PRO: Sebastian Bear-McClard, Oscar Boyson, Eli Bush, Scott Rudin • MUS: Daniel Lopatin • DES: Sam Lisenco • CAST: Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett

Benny and Josh Safdie, aka the Safdie brothers, are quickly defining themselves as crown jewels of New York cinema, who can go toe to toe and pound for pound with the greats.  Uncut Gems marks their follow up to their critically acclaimed film Good Time, starring Robert Pattison.

There’s a spontaneity and vitality to Uncut Gems that feels totally improvised, but make no mistake it’s a finely crafted structure; a diamond through and through.  It might have something to do with the Safdies spending a decade honing the script, distilling it down to its absolute purest form. But somehow even this explanation doesn’t cut it. It’s more likely the result of some mysterious unseen process, that’s nothing short of cinematic alchemy. Uncut Gems is an incendiary display of virtuoso, acid-soaked filmmaking. It seems to have been born straight out of the head of Zeus, like a bolt of lightning. The film follows a full-tilt day in the life of jeweller, and chronic high-stakes gambler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler).

There’s a wild glisten in Howard’s eye, a yearning ambition that seems unfathomable in its scope. As Howard traverses the New York diamond district, we’re brought into the sphere of his world.  His working and domestic lives are an interconnected mess, and where one ends and the other begins is impossible to discern.  He settles bets. Trades bets. And pawns goods, only to place more bets. He’s separated from his wife. But has a lover at work. But he has to see his kids. And then, of course, he’s up to his neck in debt. But the values of his relationships rise and crash from moment to moment. It’s a perpetual hell-like dynamic, and his soul’s split in two, as he struggles to balance his insatiable desire, with his paternal responsibilities.  But when Howard’s violently beaten by debtors, he pawns anything and everything, and lays down the bet of a lifetime; and everything hangs in the balance.

The Safdie’s have capitalized on the spiritual essence of Sandler, and utilized it in a way that casts aside any doubters. And Sandler is riveting, his anxious charisma and beating heart have never been this finely tooled.  He grounds Howard with a humanity, and an existential longing which rages through his heart and drives his destabilizing lifestyle. This is the defining performance of Adam Sandler’s career, it’s a masterclass in acting that utilizes his talent to hypnotizing effect.  The cast is rounded out with a wealth of talent including Indina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, Judd Hirsch and NBA superstar Kevin Garnett.

The Safdie’s turn the New York diamond district into a vista of fluorescent and neon-soaked horror. Their vision is crystallized by the inimitable genius of legendary cinematographer Darius Khondji, who wields his camera and lighting with ferocious honesty. There’s a heightened naturalism and reality to everything that feels more like a documentary. Every second within the frame there’s a tension that anything can happen, and it does; life unfolds, at a dizzying gymnastic pace.

This is complemented with a score courtesy of the Safdies’ regular collaborator Daniel Lopatin. His punchy dance score is a battle of beating synthesizers and brass that are moulded and cast to euphoric effect.  Between the sonic insanity of uncategorizable beats, there’s an impenetrable loneliness that’s so Howard Ratner.

But past the glisten of diamonds and the cocaine mist of Uncut Gems, the Safdie Brothers have a crafted a potent mediation about the cost of our desires. And it’s a mesmerisingly unique human experience. The Howard Ratner experience. His life instantly feels both familiar and unfamiliar, and it’s this paradoxical mystery that won’t let you stop watching. There’s a profound cosmic hunger and melancholy that fuels Howard at the core. He’s magnetically drawn to the chaos of the moment even when he risks gravitating towards destruction. Ultimately, this all adds fuel to fire, making Uncut Gems an open-veined shot of adrenaline straight to the heart.

Michael Lee

135′ 21″
16 (see IFCO for details)

Uncut Gems is released 10th January 2020

Uncut Gems – Official Website

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Review: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

DIR: J.J. Abrams • WRI: Chris Terrio, J.J. Abrams • DOP: Dan Mindel • ED: Maryann Brandon, Stefan Grube • DES: Rick Carter, Kevin Jenkins • PRO: J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, Michelle Rejwan • MUS: John Williams • DES: Michael Giaimo• CAST: Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley

When George Lucas produced and directed the astoundingly successful lightning in a bottle that was Star Wars he very soon had a hindsight moment in were the whole thing was always going to be a nine-part saga, though Gary Kurtz the original producer might not agree.  Whether Lucas likes it or not or whether we like it or not, the promise has been fulfilled, the ‘conclusion’ has finally been reached. We can only hope. 

Opening with the usual Flash Gordon style primer for the adventure ahead, we are told that rumours of Emperor Palpatine’s demise have been greatly exaggerated and he is plotting the final push on universe-kind. Cut to Kylo-Ren looking suitably pissed off and doing some unconvincing lightsaber moves on a band of Palpatine’s soldiers in his attempts to retrieve an exotic looking GPS device to help him find the emperor.  One device retrieval later and Kylo is chatting to the Emperor in his hidden lair. Of course it was the Emperor who was behind Snoke and every other darn bit of evil you can think of in the last two chapters while he has been readying himself for the real evil master plan.

Palpatine makes Kylo the same offer he gave his granddaddy. As part of the deal, Kylo must kill Rey as she poses a deeper threat to the Emperor’s success at evilness and despot type behaviour than your average resistance fighter. Soon he is trying to track down Rey as she and the merry band of resistance fighters are trying to track down a similar device to the one Kylo used to find the emperor in the first place. Got it?  That’s basically a synopsis of the first half hour and it continues much in the same vein for the rest of the story as plot logic and what has gone before adds up to very little.  

Back in the helm is JJ Abrams, directing with the safe pair of hands that seems to be required for the fanboy service this trilogy began with. Pretty much 70% of Rian Johnson’s plotting for the last ‘controversial’ Star Wars chapter, The Last Jedi has been ignored or laughingly turned on its head in this chapter. Rose, a key character from the last film and an enjoyable one to my mind, has been treated very shabbily here, relegated to hanging out with Princess General Leia as they plan their final attack on the emperor.  The character and the actor suffered nasty comments from internet bullies and it seems that rather than defy the lambasting, the powers that be have kept her to one side to avoid the ire of such numb nuts that have nothing better to do than troll the internet.  

The film is not without thrills and is definitely an amusing jaunt for the most part once you don’t think too hard about who, what or why. But if you do prefer character story over spectacle and a decent amount of logic to aid the storytelling then you will come out of the cinema frustrated.  At least things are wrapped up well enough by the end of the credits that we really don’t need to visit this story again. But those nine chapters might easily end up being twelve chapters when the box-office count comes in.

Paul Farren

141′ 41″
12A (see IFCO for details)

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is released 19th December 2019

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker  – Official Website

 

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Review: Frozen II

DIR: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee • WRI: Jennifer Lee • ED: Jeff Draheim • DES: Alex Holmes • PRO: Peter Del Vecho • MUS: Christophe Beck • DES:
Michael Giaimo• CAST: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad

Frozen is the kind of film to arrive once in a blue moon. Seemingly out of nowhere the film based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen became a cultural phenomenon. It was the highest-grossing film of 2013, even more impressive considering Iron Man, Thor, Superman, Bilbo Baggins, and Mike and Sully returned to screens that same year. Parents all over the world were doomed to a sentence of having to listen to the soundtrack on every car journey. Most people still shiver upon hearing the opening moments of “Let It Go”. Elsa became a character as recognisable as Cinderella. The film was a huge awards winner, collecting the Best Animated Feature Oscar with ease. It’s hard to remember a film that arrived with such minimal fanfare and went on to become a milestone moment in cinema. With all that being said, upon re-watching the first film you’ll be greeted with a film that as a movie is actually pretty mediocre. The story is all over the place making the film unsure of what it wants to be, Olaf is at times insufferable, the trolls take up way too much of the running time and Hans is a nothing villain. Considering Frozen was released during Disney’s renaissance it would have been fitting for the film to reach the heights of Tangled or Zootopia. With a sequel arriving six years later film fans across the world are eagerly waiting to see if Frozen 2 is at the level the first film should have been at. 

Frozen 2 takes place three years after the events of the first film as Anna (Kristen Bell), Elsa (Idina Menzel), Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), Sven and Olaf (Josh Gadd) leave Arendelle to travel to a mysterious new land that may contain the secret behind Elsa’s powers. Change is the central theme of the film, which is fitting seeing as the children who adored the first film are six years older. Elsa is yearning for the unknown. Anna is quietly wondering what her purpose is, it isn’t easy being the sister of a god-like woman. Kristoff is ready to take the next step in his relationship with Anna by proposing to her. Even Olaf is in the midst of change as he ponders what aging will be like for a snowman who wasn’t meant to live past a week. The narrative takes the backseat in terms of giving the characters inner journeys that hold more weight than there actual mission. For instance, there’s no villain in the film. A bold move that pays off as it gives more time for character development, songs and moments where the gorgeous animation will blow you away. This is a sequel that is aware of the faults of its predecessor, improving in almost every way. This film is a shining example of how less is often more. 

A big worry with any sequel is that it will ruin the characters that made the previous film shine. The heart of Frozen lies within the relationship between sisters Anna and Elsa. Both characters are driven by how much their sibling means to them. At times they make foolish decisions in the hope of protecting one another. Some will detest a questionable decision that one of them makes in the third act, yet when you.re fuelled by protecting your family you will do anything to keep them safe. Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel both give great performances respectfully. Bell is as funny as ever as she brings in most of the films laughs. In the previous film Elsa was a character who the film wanted audiences to think was complex, but never did much to drive the point home. Elsa in Frozen 2 is leaps and bounds better than before. Menzel has had few roles outside of the world of musicals, based on her performance here you wouldn’t have noticed. Elsa search for identity is made compelling by a sense of vulnerability that Menzel has in her voice. For all the little kids out there looking for a role model you no longer need to look. Elsa has justified why she is one of the world’s most popular characters.

The rest of the gang have little to do compared to their last outing. Kristoff, who was easily the highlight last time, has been relegated to watching from the side. It’s a shame considering how much energy Jonathan Groff brings to the film whenever he’s on-screen. From being at the core of the original adventure to being sidelined to fumbling proposal attempts, it’s a sad sight to behold. Olaf falls on the other side of the spectrum. Previously Olaf was stuffed down the audience’s throats; when a character is as one-note as Olaf his stick becomes very annoying very quickly. This time around Olaf isn’t given nearly as much to do. A decision that allows Josh Gad to make the most of his screen time; a sequence where he explains the events of the first film is hysterical. Gad deserves credit for delivering a performance that won’t scar parents. The only new characters with anything of note to add is Mattias (Sterling K. Brown) a guard from a mysterious new group. Brown brings laughs similar to his Emmy winning guest role on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. However, he has zero relevance to the plot. A sequel brings the opportunity to bring in new characters who can add layers of depth to the story. To see the film choose not to add any new characters feels as if it played its cards too close to its chest. 

Directing duo Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee have learned a lot from there previous collaboration. Directors who work in animation often get ignored for the work they do, even though it’s arguably harder than making a live-action film. Buck and Lee’s direction is superb. Instead of sticking to the successful winter backdrop, the pair decided to move their film into a completely different season. The autumn setting allows for gorgeous animation to captivate the audience. Every single auburn leaf on-screen is mesmerising. While the narrative may be a tad weak, it goes by largely unnoticed due to the dedication of the directors to create a spectacle. If you are fearing another soundtrack that will stay in your car for the year, you will be sad to know that this is another exceptional soundtrack. The lead track “Into the Unknown” is a shoo-in for song of the year at the Oscars as it’s another song for the whole family to belt out.  “Lost in the Woods” sees Kristoff crush an 80s inspired anthem that A-Ha would be proud of. Anna’s heartbreaking “The Next Right Thing” is a defining moment that will influence thousands of children that even at their lowest point they need to keep fighting. For this message alone Frozen 2 deserves to be seen by all. 

Frozen 2 is a vast improvement from what came before. Elsa has been fleshed out, Olaf has been minimalised to reach his full potential, the songs are just as good and the direction is magnificent. Nobody expected Frozen to be the runaway success it became. All those involved in making a sequel could have easily taken the cash and churned out a lifeless film, that’s not the case. Over the course of the 6 years that passed since the 2013 hit everyone involved made sure that they would only come back if they could top what they previously achieved. Frozen 2 doesn’t just top its past accomplishments, it conquers it. Roll on the inevitable third installment, it’s not time to let this magic go.

Liam De Brún

@liamjoeireland

103′ 4″
PG  (see IFCO for details)

Frozen 2  is released 22nd November 2019

Frozen 2  – Official Website

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Review: ‘The Lighthouse’ @ Cork Film Festival

 

Sean O’Rourke was at the Cork Film Festival to watch The Light House, Robert Eggers’ enthralling, evocative follow-up to the chilling period horror The Witch

Robert Egger’s latest spooky period piece is so bizarre, so borderline indescribable, that an attempt to sing its praises in any unified, cogent manner seems as doomed to spiral outward into the realm of incoherence as the lead characters themselves. All the same, I’ll do my best to explain why you should go see it.

From its wordless opening, The Lighthouse drops us right into the harsh reality (or perhaps unreality) its characters must endure for the film’s duration. Much like he and his team did in The Witch, Eggers immerses us in this setting completely – mixing harsh realism with expressionistic qualities in a manner not dissimilar to Jennifer Kent’s excellent work on The Babadook. We experience the difficult, everyday realities faced by the two lead characters, played by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, as they operate a lighthouse on a 19th century American island. However, we also witness their steady loss of reality painted onto the film’s visuals, creating a complex visual style that is enhanced by a stark, gritty, unromantic, black and white colour scheme that makes the film feel at home in the 19th century in the same way that particular typefaces and styles of illustration might help a reader visually place a novel in a particular time period. Mark Korven’s excellent score helps with this sense of period appropriateness while also feeling fresh and terrifying.

The film’s visceral assault on the senses is helped by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson who give stunning performances as the two leads. They expertly portray painful transitions between anger, sexual desire, hatred, affection and despair. Often, the only thing that seems to keep them from killing each other is the alcohol that sometimes lulls their angriest impulses and lets them experience something like love for each other. There is a wonderfully strange loathing and fondness between them that is continually compelling.

And all the while, the film skilfully builds an omnipresent sense of doom. Sailor superstitions become horrifyingly present – whether they are real or not. Characters’ suspicions about the nature of their reality and about each other become realized and amplified, creating a sense of mounting terror. Adding to this terror is a sense that time has lost meaning, that logic has become unsatisfactory, that any coherent conception of reality is lost. 

I will stop myself from going into more specifics. This film deserves to be experienced with its many surprises and absurdities intact, and it’s best that I don’t lose the run of myself trying to detail why it’s all so captivating. Suffice to say, the film artfully pulls its audience into its setting and the fragile mental states of its characters. If any of that sounds appealing (or at least morbidly interesting) to you, then a viewing of this film is well worth your time.
 
The Lighthouse is released in cinemas 31st January 2020
 

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Review: Ordinary Love

DIR: Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn • WRI: Owen McCafferty • DOP: Piers McGrail • ED: Nick Emerson • DES: Nigel Pollock • PRO: David Holmes, Piers Tempest • MUS: David Holmes, Brian Irvine • CAST: Liam Neeson, Lesley Manville, David Wilmot 

Married for over 30 years, Joan (Lesley Manville) and Tom (Liam Neeson) are enjoying their life together – going on walks by the sea to stay fit and bickering at the shops. But when Joan finds a lump in her breast, the couple have to decide how to manage her diagnosis and move forward. The film examines the quiet perseverance and strength of normal people in extraordinary circumstances. 

Ordinary Love shows every stage of diagnosis, from finding a lump, to receiving a hospital appointment, mammogram, biopsy and upper body scan. I think this will be of a huge comfort to people in years to come. Whether it’s someone close to you or a friend of a friend, breast cancer affects a staggering number of people (1 in 9 according to Breast Cancer Ireland) and having this film as a starting point will serve people well. Choosing to show every part of the diagnosis is authentic and important. It’s worth noting that McCafferty drew inspiration from a personal place, as his wife survived breast cancer treatment.

While undergoing treatment, Joan begins to come out of her shell and talk to other patients. Bringing in minor characters this way is a masterful move by scriptwriter Owen McCafferty, as these moments change Joan’s perspective and present different experiences of chemo and cancer.

It’s great to see a story purely focused on a middle-aged couple on the big screen for a change. Lesley Manville, of Phantom Thread fame, is phenomenal and carries the role with charm and ease. Neeson is fantastic as the supportive husband, his normal accent adding a level of authenticity to the role. 

Cinematographer Piers McGrail constructs careful shots that catch your eye and bring beauty to everyday moments. His shot composition draws attention to difficult moments for the characters. You see the characters deal with these huge concepts of life and death while still managing to get on with the weekly shop. 

You’ll come out of the cinema with a new sense of how to live. You’ll remember to enjoy the little things: the cup of coffee with a friend, petty arguments, the walk beside the sea. Life is made up of so many of these moments you can enjoy if you decide to. Ordinary Love serves as a reminder to keep living, laughing and enjoying human connection. Co-directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn have created a film that’ll last a lifetime, and any film that encourages people to check for lumps is good in my book.

Aoife O’Ceallachain

92′ 8″
12A (see IFCO for details)

Ordinary Love is released 6th December 2019

Ordinary Love – Official Website

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Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire @ Cork Film Festival

Sean O’Rourke takes a look at Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

In a scene midway through Portrait of a Lady on Fire (or Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) the two lead characters, Marianna, and Héloïse, one an artist, the other a lady awaiting her encroaching marriage, point out each other’s habitual gestures and their meanings – a bitten lip that signifies anger, a slightly raised eyebrow that signifies a loss of control. And for the rest of the film, those gestures become highlighted and significant. A raised eyebrow might suddenly seem crucial to our understanding of a scene. We might wonder if a bitten lip means the same thing now as it did when it was first identified, giving us insight into the evolution of these characters. It even begins to seem as though each one starts exhibiting some of the habitual gestures of the other.

We see their points of connection in these increasingly shared gestures and the already accomplished performances of Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel become even more meaningful, more revealing. It’s just one example of the excellent plotting done by director Céline Sciamma, who continually begins threads like this that weave their way throughout the film such that each ensuing scene becomes further layered with meaning and emotional resonance. Her skill behind the camera, both as director and screenwriter, is astounding and, on this simple plot, a love story between two women, she paints an astounding portrait of dynamic human connection within societal structures and the possibilities of what those connections might look like when the most harmful of those structures are stripped away. 

The film examines this theme by following Marianna, an artist in the 19th century, who has been sent to an island where she is to paint a wedding portrait of Héloïse, a young aristocrat. This portrait is to be sent away to Héloïse’s future, unknown Milanese husband. The painting of it, therefore, signals a sort of death of liberty for Héloïse. For this reason, inconveniently enough for Marianna, Héloïse refuses to sit for her portrait. Therefore, Marianna begins to befriend Héloïse, all the while covertly and closely observing her, painting her in secret. However, once all remnants of patriarchal control (which hold Héloïse to her coming marriage, hold back Marianna’s career, and police the types of relationships women are able to have with one another) leave the Island temporarily, Marianna and Héloïse are able to connect more and more closely with one another. They form a loving, ever-evolving bond that has a built-in time limit as Marianna’s painting of Héloïse, and indeed Héloïse herself, must soon be shipped away from this temporary utopia to Milan.

Since the film so adeptly and continually builds and displays the complexities of this relationship as I have said, we get the chance to see and deeply feel the building intimacy between these characters. We see this building relationship in an environment that is usually intensely realistic, with close attention to, for example, the realistic details of the act of painting, of clothing oneself, of cooking and eating. Sciamma uses these realistic details to give us tangible insight into how these characters are growing to perceive each other through how they perform these actions – especially through the act of painting where Marianna must constantly adjust how she depicts Héloïse in accordance with her evolving perception of Héloïse. Therefore, it is startling when this realism is occasionally and suddenly intruded on by myth and the uncanny in moments of artistic inspiration, longing, and anxiety, represented in a non-realistic manner. These moments are made all the more notable for being entirely unexpected in the context of the aesthetic of the rest of the film. And yet, these strange, eerie moments feel perfectly at home in the story, bringing us further into these characters’ perspectives, perhaps implying a shifting perception of the world brought on by their shifting perceptions of each other and vice-versa.

Sciamma handles these altering tones so well and uses them to further her insights on gender, class, human connection, and queerness, fully immersing us in this dynamic relationship and its implications. This unique, beautiful, queer, love story seemed to profoundly affect the audience I saw it with at the Cork Film Festival. I can assure you that it has affected me like no other film this year and I sincerely recommend you seek it out as it becomes more widely available in the coming months.

 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire screened on Saturday, 16th November 2019 as part of the Cork Film Festival (7 – 17 November).

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Review: The Nightingale

 

DIR/WRI: Jennifer Kent • DOP: Radek Ladczuk • ED: Simon Njoo • DES: Alex Holmes • PRO: Kristina Ceyton, Steve Hutensky, Bruna Papandrea • MUS: Jed Kurzel • CAST: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr

Watching Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is an oppressively confining experience. Nearly every scene seems to almost press in on the film’s protagonist, Clare, a transported Irish convict. Her life in a small Tasmanian settlement is oppressive, appropriate given the near unspeakable trauma she endures there. But even after she leaves for the ostensibly more open Tasmanian wilderness on a revenge mission, that feeling of confinement remains. Walls are replaced with brush that surrounds each scene, making these scenes feel small, cut-off, stifling. There, she meets a guide named Billy, a Tasmanian aboriginal. These two characters are framed by a 1.375:1 aspect ratio (a fancy way of saying that the frame is nearly as tall as it is wide), making it seem as though even the edges of the screen are  pressing inwards on them. And all the while, every random encounter with a colonizer out in the wilderness carries the threat of murder and rape. We are effectively boxed in with these characters, feeling their vulnerability to the British colonial project that surrounds them and constricts, ready to destroy not only their bodies but their identity and any conception they might have of home and belonging. Kent weaponsizes this feeling of confinement expertly, much as she did in her excellent The Babadook, giving us little comfort as we watch this revenge tale unfold. This alone would mark out Kent’s remarkable direction well enough and would give me good reason to recommend the film.

However, there’s more to this tale. There is comfort here. Though both Clare and Billy share English as a common tongue, they both also speak their respective native tongues. Both lead actors are excellent, especially in the moments where they make clear the intensely personal yet expansive cultural significance behind this native speech. In scenes where we witness this, we see a magical confluence between director and actor that suddenly makes these confined scenes feel liberatingingly expansive, not because the scenes become visually more open, but because we can hear and feel the vastness of the cultural identities carried on their voices, indicating something that colonialist violence hasn’t yet been able to completely stifle.

Here, the film displays its remarkable empathetic powers that, when present as they are for the vast majority of the film, make its insights into such heady topics as colonial, social stratification most compelling and its horrific violence most affecting. The scenes that lack this empathy are, therefore, its least effective. The film’s biggest weakness is one of its villains who becomes so evil, so inhuman, that my interest in his scenes waned. Indeed, the most interesting and affecting monstrosities of the film are the ones that are inexcusable, yet feel as though they are being inflicted by people tinged with a horrifying familiarity – who feel human and are thus all the more repulsive for it. In the rare moments when the film lacks this relatability, it loses some of its otherwise tight grip on the senses.

It must also be admitted that the film is quite long and doesn’t maintain the forward momentum it creates for itself in its first half. And yet, I feel that this is not actually a weakness. The film needs some downtime to convincingly expand its central conflict beyond that of a standard revenge thriller. It is as the complex, touching central relationship between Clare and Billy evolves alongside the film’s very plot structure that we might best see just how strong this script really is. As this happens, we get more and more moments of expansive meaning within this stifling, colonially circumscribed world and these moments of expansiveness are every bit as compelling as the nail-biting confinement we experience through most of the film. This dynamic helped me to feel no small amount of love for the two protagonists and what they represent. It made me realize that the film has done something truly special and is worthy of our rapt, horrified attention.

Sean O’Rourke

136′ 16″
18 (see IFCO for details)

The Nightingale is released 29th November 2019

The Nightingale – Official Website

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