Review: The Nightingale @ Cork Film Festival


Tom Crowley attended a screening of Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale at this year’s Cork Film Festival.

Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent has made a stark film about her country’s brutal past. It is a film of shocking violence and unspeakable cruelty. Set in Tasmania in 1825 when it was a penal colony called Van Diemen’s Land, the Black War between British colonists and Aboriginal Australians is in full swing. Our protagonist Clare (Franciosi) is an Irish convict forced into slavery on a penal colony. She cooks, cleans and entertains the British soldiers with her beautiful singing voice. She has formed a family of her own on the colony. Her debt to society has well been paid but the unit’s commanding officer Lieutenant Hawkins (Claflin) will not let her go. Early on in the film there is a harrowing scene of almost unwatchable violence- in fact it provoked 30 walkouts at the films premiere at the Sydney Film Festival. Clare will never be the same again. She enlists the help of indigenous tracker Billy (Ganaambarr), who reluctantly helps her to hunt down those who have done her wrong. 

The previous sentence may imply Jennifer Kent has made a revenge flick. However, like her previous work The Babadook (2014), The Nightingale has much more on its mind than being a genre picture. It is a damning indictment of British colonialism, an eloquent take down of oppressive, toxic masculinity, aggressive criticism of class systems and parable about the futility of war. The film asks uneasy questions and doesn’t offer any easy answers. Take for example the layered colonial dynamic between Clare and Billy. Clare is the oppressed until she interacts with Billy and you realise she in other circumstances, is the oppressor. 

Like she did with The Babadook, Kent uses a blue/grey palette to make the audience feel the harshness of this environment. The film is presented in 1.37:1, a box ratio to highlight the oppressive reality of Clare’s life. A technique used recently by Robert Eggers for The Witch (2015) and Xavier Dolan for Mommy (2014), two very different films striving for the same effect. 

One could be critical of Kent’s characterisation of the film’s villains, the British soldiers. They are quite archetypal. The Lieutenant is handsome, angular boned, but has a pitch black heart and zero empathy for anyone ‘underneath’ him. He has two drunken sidekicks; Ruse (Herriman) is rodent-like and happy to do whatever his Lieutenant says. Jago (Greenwood) is dim-witted and submissive. They are caricatures written to fit Kent’s political agenda. You want these characters to die a slow and painful death. This could be perceived as audience manipulation on the part of the director, especially the way the film plays out in the end, the audience almost complicit in the violence.

Dublin born, Aisling Franciosi, puts in a brilliant performance in what must have been a brutal experience for the actress. Like Essie Davis’s Amelia before her, Kent portrays this world largely through Clare’s perspective. There is no hiding from Kent’s close-up as Franciosi illuminates grief, horror, trauma, longing, helplessness and glimpses of brutal satisfaction. 

Whatever the political message, Kent has made a film that has built upon the promise of her first. It is a film about a brutal chapter in humanities past. We shouldn’t look away no matter how hard it is to watch. A nightingale symbolises virtue and goodness, of which in this film, neither can be found.   


The Nightingale screened on 11th November 2019 @ the 2019 Cork Film Festival (7 – 17 November).


The Nightingale is in Irish cinemas from 29th November 2019.




Review: Blinded by the Light

DIR: Gurinder Chadha • WRI: Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurinder Chadha, Sarfraz Manzoor • PRO: Jane Barclay, Paul Mayeda Berges, Jamal Daniel • DOP: Ben Smithard • ED:  Justin Krish • DES: Nick Ellis • MUS: A.R. Rahman • CAST: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Ganatra, Aaron Phagura, Dean-Charles Chapman, Nell Williams, Rob Brydon and Hayley Atwell

It is not a mystery that Bruce Springsteen has a loyal and avid following. If this is news to you, check out the 2013 documentary Springsteen and I, or better yet go to one of his concerts. Springsteen means different things to different people, but every fanatic will attest that Springsteen represents truth, or at least the search for one. Gurinder Chadha’s new film Blinded by the Light (named after the first song on his debut album Greetings from Asbury Park) is a celebration, not only of Springsteen’s music, but of individualism. Written by Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurinder Chadha and Sarfraz Manzoor, the message, like a lot of Springsteen’s work is not only to go out and live your life, but to go out and grab it by the balls, no matter who you are, or where you are from. 

There are a lot of correlations between Chadha’s film and Springsteen’s music. One being that if it doesn’t pull you in from the start, I can only imagine that one might see it as a facile attempt to exploit his music. But if it grabs you, like it did this reviewer, you’ll be all in. Blinded by the Light tells the story of a young Pakistani teenager, Javed (Kalra), growing up (pardon the pun) in Luton in the late 1980s. Thatcher, The National Front and a conservative father form a three-pronged repressive force to this aspiring writer. He has a best friend, Matt (Chapman), who listens to The Pet Shop Boys and believes that ‘synths are the future’ (he is not far wrong). However, it is a new friend Roops (Phagura), a Springsteen obsessive who loans Javed Born in the USA and Darkness on the Edge of Town. He sticks them in his Walkman and his life is changed forever.

The formula of the film is a predictable one. In fact, it follows the same beats as Chadha’s 2002 film Bend it Like Beckham (replace David Beckham and football with Springsteen and writing). Yet the raw emotion that accompanies Springsteen’s music and lyrics elevates this film and becomes its heart and soul. To be fair to Chadha, she is also not afraid to veer into more adult themes than she has before. Montages of Thatcher’s Britain, job centres and National Front marches recall the work of Shane Meadows as she ups the ante on racist themes she has alluded to in previous films. Some sequences are frighteningly current. She, like Springsteen, can mix darkness with hope. 

Blinded by the Light joins the present wave of musical films, some good, Rocketman, and some bad Bohemian Rhapsody, Yesterday. Blinded by the Light falls into the former category, while systematic, its fantastical elements and musical numbers are enough to sweep you along, outweighing and disavowing otherwise predictable storytelling. 

Tom Crowley

117′ 11″
12A (see IFCO for details)

Blinded by the Light is released 9th August 2019

Blinded by the Light – Official Website



Review: American Animals

DIR/WRI: Bart Layton • DOP: Ole Bratt Birkeland • ED: Nick Fenton, Chris Gill, Julian Hart • MUS: Anne Nikitin • DES: Scott Dougan • PRO: Arcadiy Golubovich, Macdara Kelleher, Jonathan Loughran, Tim O’Hair • CAST: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Udo Kier, Ann Dowd


From its very first title card, American Animals boasts of its historical accuracy. ‘This is not based on a true story’ appears on the screen, only for the ‘not based on’ to be dropped to read ‘This is a true story. American Animals is the first fictional feature film from filmmaker Bart Layton, who is most famous for the 2012 documentary The Imposter. The Imposter tells the unbelievable true story of a French man impersonating a missing Texas teenager and being accepted by the boy’s family despite being seven years older, speaking with a French accent and not matching his physical description at all.

While American Animals might not be as outrageous as The Imposter, it is still hard to fathom why four college kids would risk their futures to steal a handful of rare books from their University – the university in question is the Transylvania University in Lexington Kentucky. Granted, the score would garner them a couple of million dollars but as the plan escalates and complicates they are given plenty of time to back out of a pipe dream, but they never do.

Spencer (Keoghan), an art student, comes into contact with the rare books on a tour of his new campus. He mentions them to his best friend Warren (Peters) and the wheels of disaster are set in motion. This is also the point of the film where the ‘true story’ becomes complicated. Layton structures American Animals in the vein of a docu-drama. Interspersed with fictional scenes are interviews with the actual culprits of the heist. It is a technique not unlike the one used by Scottish filmmaker Kevin MacDonald for Touching the Void (2003). Layton, however, focuses more on the fictionalised scenes, using the interviews as punctuation.

More recently, Craig Gillespie employed a technique like this one for his film I, Tonya (2017), yet another unbelievable true story about a working-class ice skater Tonya Harding (played by Margot Robbie in an Oscar-nominated performance) who gets embroiled in an assault scandal which effectively ruins her career. In I, Tonya, however, the interviews are played by the actors and Gillespie is toying with the idea of a fictional film ‘based on a true story’. A line spoken by Robbie’s Harding towards the end of the film is indicative of this: ‘There is no truth, it’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth and life just does whatever the fuck it wants’. Using the actual perpetrators of the crime it is clear that Layton wants to get to some sort of truth. However, Layton also recognises that memory and perception are objective and his subjects have different memories of the same event. This is highlighted in the film through different re-enactments of the same scene and interviewees doubting that some events actually took place.

Layton serves up a multitude of hypotheses why these four young men did what they did, among them, middle-class boredom, millennial entitlement, not wanting the same ‘boring’ lives as their parents and a subconscious yearning for notoriety. None of which endears anybody to these young men. This is a problem that many critics have with the film, and it’s an age old trope in cinema, the glorification of the bandit. Yes, the fictionalised scenes are stylised in such a way to make these young men look cool, funny and engaging but these are offset by the genuine emotion of the interviews where regret is deeply expressed. What is most interesting is that these guys still don’t seem to be able to answer in any definite way why they did what they did. The film also contains a lot of references to heist films, namely Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) and Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), which can serve to glorify the modus operandi of the young men. It may also at times make light of an event which caused trauma to people so recently. However, Layton has a counter-argument and American Animals is a multi-faceted piece of work, which is accentuated by the film’s sobering final act.  

Special mention must be given to the performance of young Irish rising star Barry Keoghan. While his performance, vocally, is very close to his chilling turn as the antagonist in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), his magnetism on screen is undeniable.


Tom Crowley
116 minutes
15A (see IFCO for details)
American Animals is released 7th September 2018



Review: Upgrade

DIR/WRI: Leigh Whannell • DOP: Stefan Duscio • ED: Andy Canny • MUS: Jed Palmer • DES: Felicity Abbott • PRO: Jason Blum, Kylie Du Fresne,Brian Kavanaugh-Jones • CAST: Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilberston, Benedict Hardie, Melanie Vallejo, Simon Maiden


Leigh Whannell first found success with b-movie horror game-changer Saw (2004). Saw became a revelation within its genre and was the launching pad for the much derided ‘Torture Porn’ sub-genre. The film was directed by his friend and fellow Aussie James Wan. Following the massive success of Saw, the pair collaborated on three more films, Dead Silence (2007), Insidious (2010) and Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013), Wan as director; Whannell as writer. All were commercially successful films released to varying critical reviews. Wan’s career has sky-rocketed, helming both Conjuring films (2013, 2016), Fast and Furious 7 (2015) and Aquaman, which will be released in December of this year. One can’t help but see Whannell as a McCartney to Wan’s Lennon.

Whannell himself has made the transition to director with Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015), which was received poorly by critics. With Upgrade, his second directorial effort, Whannell has taken a little side-step from horror into the realms of techno-thriller, although his penchant for gore is still readily apparent.

Quite like a feature-length Black Mirror (2011-) episode, Upgrade is set in the not-too-distant future. Technology has taken over, autonomous cars, houses that speak to you and tend to your every need- cooks meals, tells you when you are out of eggs, orders the shopping, etc. Our protagonist, Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), is a self-confessed technophobe. The first shot we get in the film is that of a record-player. Grey listens to classic rock as he fixes a now vintage automobile- one that requires a human to drive it. He has found a little niche for himself, fixing-up these cars and selling them on to fellow motor-purists. His wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), has fully embraced the all-encompassing technology in this futuristic world. There differing philosophies on this brave new world doesn’t get in the way of the love they have for each other.

Unfortunately, in a reserve Ghost (1990) type scenario, Asha is slaughtered senselessly in the street, Grey is left paralysed from the neck down, grieving and out for revenge. Ironically it is a ground-breaking technology created by hermit/tech-genius, Eron (surely a play on Elon), that allows him to pursue his blood-lust.

That’s enough of plot. Upgrade is a film conflicted within itself. It wants to eat its cake and have it too. Sometimes it has b-movie sensibilities, others times Whannell stretches for the heady sci-fi heights of Blade Runner (1982). It’s a melodrama, and then it’s a comedy. The humour in the script takes over in the second act and seems to come from nowhere – very off-putting. The dialogue is too clunky and terribly obvious, at one point Grey actually says the line ‘I got you, you sons-of-bitches’, there are many other examples. The acting is poor, especially from the Harrison Gilbertson (a Dane deHaan look-a-like) who plays the villain of the piece, Eron. Melanie Vallejo and Logan Marshall-Green do not escape unscathed either. They cannot quite carry over the script’s tonal imbalances. A female cop, played by Betty Gabriel, is nothing more than a thinly drawn stereotype.

Whannel leaves himself open for a sequel.This reviewer will not be in a rush to see it.


Tom Crowley
100 minutes
15A (see IFCO for details)
Upgrade is released 31st August 2018


Review: Last Flag Flying


DIR: Richard Linklater • WRI: Richard Linklater, Darryl Ponicsan  PRO: Richard Linklater, Ginger Sledge, John Sloss  DOP: Shane F. Kelly • ED: Sandra Adair • MUS: Graham Reynolds • DES: Bruce Curtis• CAST: Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carell

With Last Flag Flying, Richard Linklater has supposedly made his second ‘spiritual sequel’ in a row. His 2016 effort Everybody Wants Some! captured the ‘spirit’ of his 1993 gem Dazed and Confused – taking its young, wild, stick-it-to-the-man attitude and translating them from Senior Year High School to Freshmen Year College, using different characters in the process. The complications behind the term ‘spiritual sequel’ are plenty and in any case Everybody Wants Some! is nowhere near as good a film as Dazed and Confused.

With Last Flag Flying, Linklater once again enters the murky waters of ‘spiritual sequel’. Last Flag Flying’s father film is Hal Ashby’s 1973 New American Cinema masterpiece The Last Detail, starring Jack Nicholson. The film had a sense of humanity and authenticity to it, two ingredients that can be found in abundance in most of Richard Linklater’s work. In The Last Detail, two sailors are tasked with escorting a younger subordinate to serve a harsh sentence in jail for a dishonourable discharge. The two sailors warm to the charming innocence of the other and endeavour to show the young man a good time before he spends some of his best years locked up.

The Last Detail is a true masterpiece and catching up with these characters 30 years on (Last Flag is set in 2003) in a film directed by Richard Linklater is a truly mouth-watering prospect. Unfortunately, this is a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’. The names and personalities of the characters have been changed beyond recognition and perhaps most surprisingly, gone is the sense of humanity and authenticity. These sentiments are replaced by a politically charged agenda and characters cut out to meet certain political views of the Iraq war.

Steve Carrell plays Doc Shepard, a man who has lost his son to the war in Iraq. He seeks out Sal (Cranston) and Mueller (Fishburne), two of his Vietnam ‘buddies’ to accompany him while he travels to collect his son’s body. Those who are watching the film having already seen The Last Detail will spend your time wondering who is who in Last Flag Flying. Carrell’s Nicholson moustache is particularly jarring. In fact, it’s best to watch Last Flag Flying without having seen The Last Detail as the film pales in comparison in every single way.

It’s always difficult to balance comedy and tragedy but Last Flag Flying really messes up its tonal juggling act. It is contrived when it tries to be genuine and lacks any kind of comic punch. There is a running joke about mobile phones – because it’s 2003. The humour is reminiscent of recent low-brow aging actors behaving badly comedies such as Last Vegas (2013) and Going in Style (2017). Bryan Cranston is completely miscast as a disgruntled army veteran New Yorker with a drinking problem. Carrell under acts to the point where he sounds like Brick Tamland making a one-liner every time he enters the conversation. Laurence Fishburne fairs slightly better as a former wild-man turned Reverend but even that bit grows stale fairly fast. Sal and Mueller clash over politics and religion, sometimes the tone is serious sometimes more light-hearted. Doc, the one holding all the grief, plays referee and other times enlightens and sobers the ideals of the other two men.

Last Flag Flying is a road film, just like its predecessor. The difference is you feel like you want to be on the road with the characters in The Last Detail. You could imagine happily drinking in a shabby hotel room in your underwear with them. This is not the case with the aging characters in Last Flag Flying. You would want to run a mile from their preachy patriotism and scepticism of mobile phones and the internet. It just doesn’t feel like a Richard Linklater film. Gone is the subtlety in the dialogue. That doesn’t seem to be important in the script that he wrote with Darryl Poniscan, the author of both The Last Detail and Last Flag Flying. The message tries to be the important element here. This message of patriotism and what it means to fight for one’s country is mixed and problematic, especially in the film’s final act. It’s a film that doesn’t pick a side, much to its detriment.

Tom Crowley

15A (See IFCO for details)

125 minutes
Last Flag Flying is released 26th January 2018

Last Flag Flying – Official Website



Review: Straight Time (1978)

Tom Crowley checks out Ulu Grosbard’s 1978 film Straight Time, which recently screened at the IFI as part of its Dustin Hoffman Retrospective.

We begin Straight Time (1978) with our anti-hero Max Dembo (Hoffman) leaving prison after a six-year stint for armed robbery. Director Ulu Grosbard tricks us. He gives us a shot of a woman and her kids. We assume they are there to see our protagonist come home. They are not there for him. Max jumps in the back of a pick-up truck and hitches a lift to central Los Angeles. Max is alone, make no mistake about it. He visits the house of an old friend Willy (Busey). He is told by Willy’s wife (Bates) he is not welcome, he is a bad influence.

A career criminal Max is determined to go straight. In the space of a week he gets a job, finds a room to sleep in and even begins courting his recruitment agent Jenny (Russell). Max, however, never feels particularly comfortable in his environment. Over dinner with Jenny he explains that many inmates find it scarier on the outside; one gets the feeling that he is indirectly talking about himself. Despite this, Max gets on with it, Jenny the dominating motivator for him to live the straight life.

A serious obstacle to this is his passive aggressive parole officer Earl (Walsh). It is not easy to determine whether Earl is purposely being a menace or if he is just plain ignorant. Either way he is a thorn in the side of an already edgy Max. Max comes home one night to see his bedroom door open. Earl is nosing around his digs. He finds matches and automatically assumes Max is ‘fixing’. He sends him back to the county jail while he awaits results of a drug test.

This is the final straw for Max. He goes on the run with the support of Jenny. The plan is to rob enough money to leave L.A. for greener pastures. Once Max re-accepts his criminality we see Dustin Hoffman’s performance become far more external. The shifty and uneasy straight Max becomes far more purposeful when he embraces his identity as a criminal. First incarcerated as a juvenile, it is the only life he knows.

Max is connected. He runs in criminal circles, his only friends are criminals or ex-criminals. For better or worse this is who Max is. One of the ex-criminal’s is Jerry (Stanton). Max convinces him to go on a spree with him. Not that he needs much convincing. Jerry is a successful paint contractor but the straight life is boring the hell out of him. It is a terrific performance by Harry Dean Stanton who brings comedy and pathos to the film.

The first impression of Max is that he is a moral person caught up in an immoral world. He believes the world is unfair and he does everything he can to cheat it, a classic counter-culture hero. It is shocking then to see how greedy and at times violent Max can be. His greediness and violent behaviour is never glamorised either by the script or Hoffman’s performance. Max sucks you in, turns on you and the ultimate feeling you have for him is pity. It is one of Hoffman’s many career highs.

The script is adapted from a novel by Edward Bunker called No Beast So Fierce. A former career criminal himself Bunker turned to writing and acting. Film fans will perhaps most recognise Bunker from playing the part of Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). Max and his misadventures are based on Bunker and his life. The title of the book pleads sympathy for the devil. The film seems to at the beginning but ultimately loses this one track approach mainly on account of Hoffman’s layered performance.  Bunker shares a screenwriting credit for this film with two-time Oscar winner Alvin Sargent (Julia (1978) and Ordinary People (1981)) and Jeffery Boam. Bunker also has a cameo in a bar with a mustachioed Hoffman. They look like they could be father and son, or a weird cross-generational twin.

Straight Time is a fantastic, stirring, character-driven film. It is not always mentioned in Hoffman’s popular filmography but it is among the talented actors best work. A major flaw in the film is the relationship between Max and Jenny. It is never really clarified what attracts Jenny to Max so much. The answer is in the writing. Female characters are either underwritten or stereotyped in this film. This is an accusation you could point at many of the New Wave American films. Women are the object of male desire. They will do anything for them for little or no reason. Watching back as a revisionist it looks like a collective fantasy in the male-dominated writing rooms.

Having said that, this reviewer believes that Straight Time along with Scarecrow (1973) are two films from their potent era that deserve more attention.




Review: Alien: Covenant



DIR: Ridley Scott • WRI: John Logan, Dante Harper • PRO: David Giler, Walter Hill, Mark Huffam, Michael Schaefer, Ridley Scott • DOP: Dariusz Wolski • ED: Pietro Scalia • DES: Chris Seagers • MUS: Jed Kurzel • CAST: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterson, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Guy Pearce, James Franco


The sequel to the much hyped Prometheus (2012) very much returns to the ethos of the early Alien films. It still has some long, frankly boring scenes, in which characters try to get across their pseudo-philosophical ideals to one another but when Alien: Covenant is at its best is when it takes the tone of the original horror/sci-fi hybrid.

The title Covenant, like Prometheus, comes from the name of the ship that is taking our characters to a distant planet Origae-6. Their mission is to colonise the habitable planet. Things go awry very early on when the ship glides into a ‘space storm’ in layman’s terms. This results in the death of the ship’s captain Branson (Franco).  Second-in-command Oram (Crudup) takes over as skipper of a grieving crew including Branson’s wife Daniels (Waterson), pilot Tennesse (McBride) and an updated version of Prometheus’ android David, Walter (Fassbender). The tragic event causes the crew to be hasty, choosing to take a look at a previously unchartered planet which is mere weeks away as opposed to the seven year journey to Origae-6. An accidental detection of human life draws their attention. A fuzzy version of John Denver’s Country Roads picked up on the ships satellite.

Oram, a man of ‘faith’ gives the go ahead for the exploration mission. Daniels who is now his second-in-command is more of a sceptic and strongly opposes. It turns out that this seemingly serene planet has some sinister and deadly quirks. If you look at it thematically Alien: Covenant is again pitting religion and science against each other, as represented by the characters Oram and Daniels. If Prometheus was ambiguous about its philosophy, Alien: Covenant is a straight up nihilistic narrative where evil always gets the better of good and characters’ faith and love is only repaid by loss and eventually death.

Reading those last three lines makes the film sound ultra-depressing, however Scott delivers the narrative in such a way that you don’t get bogged down by it as the action is happening. Covenant is very much an amalgamation of Scott’s own original and James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) with a hint of its direct predecessor, Prometheus, and the result is not original and very predictable.  The script is not as bad as Prometheus but there is way too much expositional dialogue for comfort. The film delivers on scares, gore and some interesting action sequences.

As with Prometheus, the highlight is again Michael Fassbender- who is in a duel role this time round. As well as playing Walter he reprises his role as David, who the crew find marooned on the very planet they are exploring. Fassbender’s talent as an actor is plain to see as he is required to play two different robots on seemingly different levels of consciousness. David (whether deluded or not) thinks he is capable of feelings. Walter is more practical about his existence and his depth to his creators. The slight idiosyncrasies in Fassbender’s demeanour and voice when switching between Walter and David are a marvel.

The creationist theme is carried on from Prometheus and is embodied by David. Mary Shelley conceived Frankenstein as the modern Prometheus. David is Alien: Covenant’s Frankenstein. A mad scientist android, his villainy has burgeoned in his 10 years of isolation after the events of Prometheus.

Ultimately Alien: Covenant is not a smart enough film to get across its heady themes in any engaging way. At times it does seem to take itself too seriously, something the original Alien (1979) could not be accused of. Covenant is at its best when the horror aspect of the film comes to the fore, the problem is that one has to be patient while the scriptwriters amble down thematic blind alleys.

Tom Crowley

121 minutes
16 (See IFCO for details)

Alien: Covenant is released 12th May 2017

Alien: Covenant – Official Website






Review: Silence


DIR: Martin Scorsese • WRI: Martin Scorsese, Jay Cocks • PRO: Vittorio Cecchi Gori, Barbara De Fina, Randall Emmett, David Lee, Gastón Pavlovich, Martin Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Irwin Winkler • DOP: Rodrigo Prieto • ED: Thelma Schoonmaker • DES: Dante Ferretti • MUS: Kathryn Kluge, Kim Allen Kluge • CAST: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tabanobu Asano, Ciaran Hinds, Shinya Tsuckamoto, Yosuke Kubozuka, Issey Ogata, Yoshi Oida

Religion has always had prevalence in Martin Scorsese’s work. The veteran director grew up in Little Italy. It was a community polarised by religion and organised crime, perhaps more specifically by Catholicism and violence. His upbringing manifested in his early filmography, the French New Wave influenced Who’s That Knocking on My Door (1967) and Mean Streets (1973). Especially in Mean Streets as the films protagonist overtly struggles between his devout Catholicism and his gangster lifestyle. Mean Streets coupled with Goodfellas (1990) solidified Scorsese as the quintessential gangster filmmaker, surpassing Francis Ford Coppola, and spawning many inferior copycats.

However, if you look at Scorsese’s filmography as a whole it suggests a very different kind of filmmaker. Mobsters only make up a percentage of his modus operandi. Catholic guilt has always been an undercurrent of Scorsese’s work through symbolism and imagery, some subtle, some not so subtle in his films. Silence is Scorsese’s 3rd film after The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997) where religion is the pervading theme. Rather than hidden in his character’s psyche, it is out there plain to see and to deliberate on.

Silence tells the story of two Jesuit priest Rodrigues (Garfield) and Garrpe (Driver) who travel to Japan for a duel propose. They are to preach and practice outlawed Catholicism and to find their mentor, Ferreira (Neeson). Ferreira is rumoured to have apostatised and taken up the Buddhist religion, a slander unfathomable for the young idealist priests. From the beginning Scorsese doesn’t hold back on crucifixion imagery. The opening is brutal, harkening back to Mel Gibson’s notorious The Passion of the Christ (2004). Thankfully, Scorsese spares us from witnessing such cruelty at length, save from a couple of scenes later on in the film.

Silence, shot by Rodrigo Prieto, paints a gorgeous and treacherous journey for the Jesuits. A sense of adventure is felt as they first swim to the shores of Japan (Silence was actually shot in Taiwan). The huge risk they are taking is always there, highlighted by the films grim opening scenes.  They will encounter secret Christian villages. The trials of the villagers in the name of their God will test the limits of their pure and devout Catholicism.

Rodrigues is very much the film’s protagonist. It is an excellent performance from Andrew Garfield as a man whose very purpose in life is questioned and whose faith is tested to its very limitations as Japanese Buddhists torture anyone who declares themselves Catholic. Importantly Rodrigues himself isn’t subjected to physical torture but the Japanese endeavour to break him mentally. Rodrigues is God’s representative on earth, can he stand by and witness such immeasurable cruelty, as God’s silence exposes him to the harshest of mental anguish. The role was initially meant for Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, who for obvious reasons would be better physically and vocally equipped to play a Portuguese Jesuit. In his absence however it is no surprise that Scorsese was drawn to Garfield, his appearance uncanny to the popular artist rendering of Christ. His face brings a certain boyish innocence to a tough role. A career highlight to date.

With Silence Scorsese asks many universal religious questions without attempting to provide any answers. He doesn’t have an argument, rather a burning passion and an intense interest in the question of religion itself. Allegories can be found in the modern world, decapitated Christian heads remind one of Islamist extremism but this is not Scorsese’s raison d’etre. Scorsese is interested in the relationship between religion and humanity throughout time. This disparity is awe-inspiring for him and this seeps onto the screen with some of his best filmmaking in years. Gone is the frenzied style of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and The Departed (2006). Silence is made with care and devotion. It is a film that will get everyone who pays attention thinking, questioning, even the atheists among us.

Tom Crowley

161 minutes
15A (See IFCO for details)

Silence is released 1st January 2017

Silence– Official Website