Suite Française

Suite Française

Suite-Francaise-620x327

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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Cinema Review: Byzantium

Byzantium, film

 

DIR: Neil Jordan  WRI: Moira Buffini • PRO: Sam Englebardt, William D. Johnson, Elizabeth Karlsen, Alan Moloney, Stephen Woolley • DOP: Sean Bobbitt • ED: Tony Lawson • DES: Simon Elliott • Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones, Sam Riley

 

Neil Jordan returns to cinemas for the first time in four years with this neo-gothic vampire tale, just as that particular genre begins to sink below the zeitgeist waves. We are now post-Twilight, with True Blood and The Vampire Diaries in their second death throes.

 

But there’s life in the undead dog yet. Jim Jarmusch’s revisionist vampire art-house romcom Only Lovers Left Alive just received deserved praise at Cannes, and while Jordan’s work is flawed, it’s an admirable piece of cinema nevertheless. And why shouldn’t Jordan latch on at the last moment – his 1994 take on the myth, Interview with the Vampire, is as much responsible for the vampire boom that flowed from Buffy to Twilight as any film.
 
The film stars Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as a wandering mother/daughter vampire team, Clara and Eleanor, constantly on the move to evade from those who would uncover their true identities, and those who already know it. A moral pair, they work as sort of Angels of Death, only feeding on the terminally ill or the extremely elderly – a form of vampiric euthanasia. Clara, eternally voluptuous, trades on her body to keep the duo in housing and out of trouble. Eleanor, eternally 16, searches for meaning in her never-ending life, tortured internally by the things she has seen and done.Their wanderings bring them full circle to the sleepy English seaside town where their story began 150 years earlier, prompting a series of fractured flashbacks that give us a glimpse into their pasts. Clara’s being condemned to imprisonment in a brothel in her earlier life is echoed as she turns a run-down hotel in the present, named Byzantium, into a whorehouse with herself as madam. Eleanor starts at a new school where her creative writing assignments draw suspicious glances and her relationship with sickly classmate Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) causes her cursed heart to skip a beat.
 
A gorgeous production, shot in some curious locations, Byzantium looks as good as anything Neil Jordan has made before. Ever-reliable cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (Hunger, Shame) excels in lighting the dark and murky streets of modern Britain, while sadly bringing little life to its nineteenth century counterpart. Perhaps the most in-your-face achievement of Byzantium is the remarkable varieties of ways the crew have found to light and shoot Gemma Arterton’s cleavage. Jordan has never been one to shy away from sexuality, but here the obsession with Arterton’s bosom is beyond distracting, the centre point of far too many frames. In one of the film’s most dramatic sequences, a vampire’s birth is heralded by a Shining-like cascade of blood, in which Arterton bathes, her cleavage overflowing with blood. Her cups literally runneth over with blood.

In spite of scene-stealing competition from her cleavage, Arterton holds much of the film together with an impressively committed performance. Ronan is ever reliable as a disenfranchised youth, and her sighs and longing glances carry her character’s tragedy. Sadly, she remains utterly unconvincing in romantic roles, and paired with the zombified Jones, sporting a Danish (?) accent that is baffling to the ears, makes for some very awkward drama. Johnny Lee Miller minces amusingly as the Victorian villain, while Control’s Sam Riley is horrendously underutilised in a supporting role.

One of Byzantium’s great saving graces is in its lightly sketched mythology, introducing its vampires as an underground cabal of male vampires who do not approve of females amongst their ranks, and forbid them to be makers. The idea of an ancient sect of fundamentalist chauvinists throws up cute allusions to the Catholic Church, although despite their intimidation it is hard to suppress a guffaw when they introduce themselves as ‘The Pointed Nails of Justice’.

Lovely to look at for the most part, adequately acted and with an impressive score by Javier Navarrete (Pan’s Labyrinth), Byzantium will not be one of Jordan’s best remembered films, but it is a welcome return to the gothic for the Irish filmmaker. While the ending feels rushed and features one excessively under-explained character reversal, there is enough in the film to keep the attention throughout.

A mobile phone vibrating in a puddle of blood, for example. There’s something we haven’t seen before.

David Neary

15A (see IFCO website for details)

118 mins
Byzantium is released on 31st May 2013

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Cinema Review: On the Road

DIR: Walter Salles • WRI: Jose Rivera • PRO: Charles Gillibert, Nathanaël Karmitz • DOP: Eric Gautier • ED: François Gédigier • DES: Carlos Conti • Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Viggo Mortensen

Based on the novel by Jack Kerouac of the same name, On the Road is the story of young writer Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and his tumultuous relationship with Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund).

Sal is first introduced to Dean by a friend in New York in 1947, Dean having moved there with his new bride Mary Lou (Kristen Stewart). He is taken by Dean’s free-spirited craving for all that life has to offer and the two form an immediate bond. Soon after Dean tells of his plans to move back to Denver with his wife and a mutual friend Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge). Sal remains in New York, trying and failing to write a novel, until he receives a drunken letter telling him to ‘bring Paradise to Denver’. Carrying his worldly possessions on his back Sal heads to Denver and from there starts a voyage that will bring him to California, New Mexico, back to New York and a host of places in between.

For a film with ‘Road’ in the title the road features as a comparatively small element. Granted, the main characters are based in a number of cities throughout and there is some travel but it merely serves as a tool for some aesthetically pleasing, but otherwise pointless, tracking shots. The characters themselves, with the exception of Sal, rarely develop during the time they spend travelling together. The same can be said for their relationships. Even in the case of the protagonist, it is only when they are stationary that they get the chance to indulge their hedonism and converse. Hedonism, it should be noted, is the name of the game.

At the beginning of the story Sal has just recovered from a mysterious illness that he advises us was related to the death of his father. He sees in Dean the vibrancy he is lacking and seeks to feed off it just as Dean, the felon and con-man, wants to feed off Sal. It is here that we find one of the central flaws. Dean is portrayed as a rogue and a charmer but we as the audience are never convinced of him being anything more than a selfish user. A few cheap laughs are to be had when Dean goes to bed with a girl that he had apparently found for one of his cohorts but his actions in these instances are display his personality in microcosm.

Sal protests at one point that Dean ‘gives people a good time just by being himself’ but he is more accurately summed up by a mentor of Sal’s. Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen) describes him as ‘feeling no responsibility towards others’ while ‘feeling others have a responsibility to support him’. Even in moments of vulnerability he quickly reverts to talking about sexual conquest. We are left wondering why people would choose to ally themselves to such as Dean for anything beyond the hedonistic, but ultimately self-destructive, lifestyle that he can offer.

The on-screen chemistry between Riley, Hedlund and Sturridge is palpable, although a number of other characters appear secondary at best. It is perhaps telling of the relationships in the film that the most enjoyable sections are when Riley’s Sal is travelling alone and in the encounters he has during those parts of his journey.

While On the Road may have benefited from a shortening of its 124-minute run-time, the episodic narrative and an excellent performance from Riley show us the America that was. Something that is worth seeing for yourself.

Paddy Delaney

Rated 16 (see IFCO website for details)
124 mins

On the Road is released on 12th October 2012

On the Road   –  Official Website

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