Wednesday, November 22, 2023


Ridley Scott's NAPOLEON gives us at least one stone-cold classic battle scene, one decent runner-up and an admirably concise tour through the iconic French General and soi-disant Emperor's career.  It's all wrapped in a pacy two and half hour historical epic complete with luscious costumes, lavish locations and emperors aplenty.  But the film as a whole does not coalesce - it is not as compelling a story as Scott's GLADIATOR - and this is because of screenwriter David Scarpa's fatal decision to balance fifty percent battles with fifty percent love story.

In Scarpa's retelling, the tragic story of Napoleon is not one a military genius brought low by his political egotism and tyrannical excess.  No, in Scarpa's view this is the tragedy of a man who succeeded when he was with Josephine and failed when he was not. The problem is we never actually see what Josephine does for him. Did she perchance give him confidence, or teach him etiquette, or inspire his victories, or make him happy? We see none of this on screen - at least in the theatrical cut. Rather, we get Joaquin Phoenix's childish, sex-obsessed, possessive boor acknowledge his wife is a "slut" but remain loyal to her regardless. And poor Vanessa Kirby is saddled with some laughable dialogue as Josephine, and precious little character development. It isn't clear why either of these characters like each other, let alone love each other.

The major crisis in their relationship is that she can't bear him a child and heir. In real life this was explained by the fact that she was older than him and fifteen years into the marriage, past her child-bearing years. But Scott has cast a woman visibly much younger than Phoenix so all the chat about fertility just feels bizarre. 

The casting is even more problematic when it comes to Phoenix, who is a fine actor, but just too old for the vast majority of this film. He works well as the weary, older, defeated, delusional egomaniac. But he does not work at all as the younger, charismatic, soldier who inspired not just a nation but a world of progressive liberal democrats.  We see nothing of his charisma - no explanation of why his coup d'etat succeeded, why the French accepted him as Emperor, or why soldiers returned to him in 1815 despite his having been responsible for so many deaths in Russia.

You can probably gather that I am not a fan of this film, although I will withhold final judgment until the contains one stone-called classic sequence: the recreation of the battle of Austerlitz. Napoleon's most famous tactical victory against the Russian-Austrian alliance is visually arresting, clearly delineated, and profoundly moving.  Moreover we see its political importance in bringing about a temporary peace in the European wars that would absorb the continent for the better part of twenty years. 

The rest of the battles are more or less fine. Toulon is depicted as Napoleon's early triumph.  Borodino is scarcely touched: wise, given that Sergei Bondarchuk's WAR AND PEACE will never be beaten in that regard. And Waterloo is compressed and flattened but basically does the job it needs to do.  I am not entirely sure why Ridley Scott cast Richard Everett, twenty years too old, to play Wellington. After all the British General was Napoleon's exact contemporary: they were born on the same day. I rather enjoyed Everett's robust performance as a no-nonsense British victor, but let's be honest, it bears nothing to do with the real Wellington.

But here we get into the realm of nitpicking. Of course Napoleon didn't see Marie-Antoinette beheaded, or bomb the pyramids, or ride into battle sabre in hand once a General. Ridley Scott says we should "get over it". I kind of agree. I don't require my historical fiction to hue to the facts. I love big historical dramatic films.  The problem with this one is that it gains nothing entertaining from its inaccuracies, and forces us to watch an altogether limp love affair when we might have seen more battles.

NAPOLEON is rated R and has a running time of 158 minutes. It was released in cinemas today and will be released later in a director's cut on Apple TV.

Saturday, November 18, 2023


Based on the novel Erasure by Percival Everett, AMERICAN FICTION is being sold as a scabrous take-down of modern politically correct sensibilities. It is that, but also so much more.  

Jeffrey Wright (Westworld) stars as Thelonius "Monk" Ellison, a tenured academic railing against the sensitivities of his Gen Z students, and the moronity of a publishing industry that wants to cage all black authors in the prison of poverty porn, rather than accepting that they can write a variety of stories.  

Monk returns home to Boston and realises his outwardly wealthy and successful family is in crisis. His sister (Tracee Ellis Ross, Blackish) is divorced and weary of caring for their mother, his brother (Sterling K Brown, This Is Us) is manically embracing his new gay identity, and his mother is declining into dementia.  Desperate for money and outraged at the commercial success of a nakedly exploitative book by his rival (Issa Rae, Insecure), Monk pens an equally trashy novel that predictably becomes a wild success. For the first time in his life, his alter-ego is selling well, optioned for a movie, and appeasing the consciences of rich white people.  Monk hates it, hates himself, and hates all those being duped by his ruse, including his new girlfriend. The question is how this will resolve.

There is much to admire in Cord Jefferson's first directorial feature. It is genuinely, brilliantly, hilariously funny it taking down the sensitivities of the progressive Left, but also Monk's own delusions. This is a movie whose pre-credits sequence contains more belly-laughs than most soi-disant comedies have in their whole running time.  But what I love about this film is that it moves beyond that to deliver what Monk seeks: whole stories about contemporary black lives that are more than simply ghetto or slave stories. The Ellisons are a successful middle class family - highly educated and refined. Their emotional problems are fully described and beautifully acted by a fine cast, among whom Sterling K Brown steals every scene he is in.

My only criticism is that the movie doesn't quite stick the landing. This is partly by design. Neither Monk, nor the director, nor maybe the novelist who wrote the source material, are interested in easy answers and pat endings. Indeed, with their movie director character played by Adam Brody (The OC) they satirise the very concept.  But I did want some consequences, if not a resolution. We all know of real life novelists exposed as lying about their real lives. I wanted to see the literary as well as the personal consequences. But this isn't that film, and as such, I was left wanting more.

AMERICAN FICTION is rated R and has a running time of 117 minutes. It played Toronto 2023 where it won the People's Choice Award for Best Film. It will be released in the USA on December 15th (cinemas) and December 22nd (streaming).


Matthew Heineman's documentary, AMERICAN SYMPHONY, is an earnest, intimate picture of professional success contrasted with private pain.  Its subjects are the incredibly talented musician Jon Batiste, and his equally talented wife, the musician, author and artist Suleika Jaouad. Heineman follows them in a monumental year, when Batiste wins multiple Grammys both for his pop album but also for scoring a movie, and when he is writing a symphony combining classical, jazz and folk music to be played at Carnegie Hall. But amidst all of this commercial success, his wife Suleika suffers a relapse from leukaemia, and has to endure a second risky bone marrow transplant, which involves great pain but also isolation. 

Heineman has incredible access: we are with Suleika as she receives her transplant, and in bed with Batiste as he wearily offloads to his therapist, head under a pillow, like a frightened child. We delight in their evident joyous love and incredible creativity. And we suffer their separation and pain, especially as Suleika confronts potentially having to be on chemo for the rest of her life.

The problem with the film is that once it establishes the initial set-up it doesn't really move.  The couple are in the statis of their respective success and suffering.  I felt the film lacked momentum or evolution. I also felt that where it might have become more gritty it flirted with but did not embrace controversy. At one point Batiste gives an interview where he discusses how black artists are constrained by a history of being expected to act a certain, garish, simplistic, way.  He uses a particular word, maybe as offensive as the N-word, to describe their activities of old and how that influences current perceptions. I wanted to explore that more. But this isn't that film, sadly.

AMERICAN SYMPHONY is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 104 minutes. It played Telluride 2023 and will be released on Netflix on November 29th.

Friday, November 03, 2023


We are trapped in a cycle of diminishing returns when it comes to Kenneth Branagh's Hercule Poirot films.  ORIENT EXPRESS was a beautifully done, subtly updated, but largely respectful adaptation of the Agatha Christie source material. NILE was also lavish and earnest in its attempts to update the material, but by changing an intricate plot, Branagh utterly ruined the story.  And now we have A HAUNTING IN VENICE, incredibly losely adapted from A Halloween Story. It works neither as detective fiction nor as a ghost story.

Branagh stars as Poirot, now retired and reclusive, in post World War Two Venice.  He is tempted out of his mansion by his old friend, detective author Ariadne Oliver, played by Tina Fey as if she's in a Screwball Comedy.  It's a great performance but one wonders which film it actually belongs to.  They are not trying to investigate a murder but to debunk a medium called Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), who Oliver and Poirot feel is exploiting the grief of opera singer Rowena Drake (Yellowstone's Kelly Reilly). Rowena recently lost her daughter and gathers a motley crew in her spooky Venetian house to make contact with her. There's the daughter's fiancé Maxime, the family doctor and his precocious son, her housekeeper, and Joyce's assistant.  When a storm sets in, we find ourselves in a locked-house mystery.

Writer Michael Green does not have form in creating his own murder-mystery plot and this one barely hangs together. Worse still, he lazily uses the Holocaust as character short-hand device.  This seems crude, especially in a film where Tina Fey is then trying to be a wise-cracking broad.  Pick a lane! I also didn't find the jump scares and obscure angles particularly frightening or effective. What a waste of a great cast and location!

A HAUNTING IN VENICE was released in cinemas in September and is now available on Hulu or other PVOD streaming services. It is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 103 minutes.


Director Emma Seligman (SHIVA BABY) and writer-actor Rachel Sennott (THE IDOL) reimagine BOOKSMART as a tale of two high-school lesbian best friends who want to lose their virginity before college.  They get their chance when a rumour goes around the school that they served time in Juvenile Detention, giving them instant cool status. The girls exploit this by setting up a kind of FIGHT CLUB to teach their fellow girls how to defend themselves from sexual predation. Naturally they are delighted when the two hot popular cheerleaders turn up.

The landscape of this film is familiar to those of us raised on John Hughes movies and HEATHERS and Friday Night Lights. It's a culture that privileges the beautiful and the sports stars and is oppressively heteronormative. It's a culture that doesn't fund teachers or books but builds a new sports field. This film is  here to rip the piss out of all of that. Not just in hilariously blunt dialogue that has characters say exactly what they think no matter how politically incorrect. But also with visual gags around posters and text written on chalk boards and aural jokes on the school's PA system.  The result is a film that is laugh-out loud funny and that will absolutely repay repeated viewing.  It features a cracking largely all-female diverse cast. That said, particular props to ex sports star Marshawn Lynch who has some of the most darkly funny lines as the girls' No Fucks Given high school teacher. And Nicholas Galitzine, most recently seen in the Amazon Prime gay rom-com RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE, is hilariously funny as the camp jock superstar.

Behind the lens, this film is exceptionally well put together by director Emma Seligman.  The editing is sharp, the music choices stunningly good and the copious violence directed with real impact and flair.  Most of all, I loved the production design and costumes.  The team have created a kind of era-ambiguous contemporary but retro feeling, as in the TV show Sex Education. It could be any time between 1989 and now. It gives the film a timeless feeling but also acknowledges our shared love of the high school movie genre, adding layers of depth to the viewing experience.

BOTTOMS is rated R and has a running time of 91 minutes. It played SXSW 2023 and was released in the USA in August. It goes on release in the UK tomorrow, November 3rd.

Saturday, October 21, 2023


The problem with Errol Morris' latest documentary is its slightness.  It takes the form of an interview with the now deceased Cold War spy novelist John Le Carre. The problem is that Le Carre aka David Cornwell is a practiced liar and has no problem answering only the questions he wants to answer in exactly the way he wants to answer them. His protestations of candidness merely add to the mockery of the project.  And let's be clear, David Cornwell does not actually want to reveal anything that he hasn't already revealed in interviews over the years, or indeed in his recent biography of the same title.

The problem is that this is a rather sanitised version of his story, shorn of all of his sexual misdemeanours. And this film, and the book upon which it is based, are rather a nasty revenge tactic played upon his official biographer Adam Sisman. When Sisman drafted his book, Cornwell persuaded him to leave out all of the sexual infidelity and to only publish after Cornwell's death. Cornwell then proceeded to publish his own autobiography to reclaim his narrative from Sisman, and now this film is being released precisely at the point when Sisman publishes his sex-filled follow up.

This all sounds like I don't like David Cornwell. Actually I am indifferent. I just don't trust him.  I LOVE the works of John Le Carre, and the Smiley novels in particular. I even picked my Oxford college on the basis that it was his alma mater.  My point is that if you already know and love the novels of John le Carre, there will be nothing new in this documentary. And if you don't already know and love the novels of John le Carre why on earth would you watch?

The story here is the one we all know. Cornwell was born in the postwar period to lower middle class parents. His mother abandoned him at 5. His father was a fraudster and bankrupt who periodically paid for Cornwell to have the upper class education he (the father) aspired to. Cornwell therefore grew up only knowing duplicity and a lack of love.  He goes to Bern (not mentioned in this doc) and then to Oxford where a Fellow recruits him to spy on the other students, arranges for him to continue when his father has no money, arranges teaching jobs for him, and finally a fully-fledged but short-lived career as a spy. He drops out and writes a spy novel that is immediately wildly successful, continues in that vein, shags around, makes this film, then dies. 

The stuff on Kim Philby IS interesting, though covered in other interviews. I find it fascinating that Cornwall recognises addiction to lying in Philby. Did he in himself?  But of course there is a category difference.  Philby was a traitor, and in Cornwell's words "evil".  I just wished we had had a more nuanced discussion of Cornwell's own relationship to his spying, his lying, and his dual persona in this film.

THE PIGEON TUNNEL has a running time of 93 minutes and is rated PG-13. It played Telluride and London 2023 and will be released on Apple TV on October 20th.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

THE KITCHEN** - BFI London Film Festival 2023 Closing Night Gala

Acclaimed actor Daniel Kaluuya (JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH) turns his hand to writing and directing in partnership with Joe Murtagh (AMERICAN ANIMALS) and Kibwe Tavares respectively.  Together they have crafted a film that is superficially a dystopian political nightmare about gentrification and police brutality.  But it soon becomes apparent that the film's real themes are of fatherhood and community. 

The film takes place in The Kitchen - the last piece of social housing in London. The government wants the residents cleared out so that they can build luxury flats instead, and when the residents refuse to leave they are punished by having their utilities cut off and periodic brutal police raids. Against this backdrop we meet Izi - a cynical man desperate to leave The Kitchen for luxury housing but constrained by the sudden appearance of a young boy called Benji who may be his son. What are the stakes of this film? At first we think they are whether Izi will have the money to move out. Then we think it's going to be a struggle for Benji's future - on the straight and narrow with Izi or joining a biker gang. 

Part of my problem with this film is that actually the dystopian future idea is never particularly well fleshed out. We are just meant to understand - instinctively - as contemporary Londoners - that the housing situation is rigged. Maybe we do - but will global audiences?  My second issue is that there are literally zero female characters that matter. In 2023. In a progressive, politically aware film.  Seriously? I guess the writers might say that this is because the entire point of the film is to focus on fatherhood, and that its key narrative arc is a selfish man taking on that responsibility. Maaaaybe. Overall, the film just feels underwritten and lugubrious. I enjoyed the creation of The Kitchen in the first hour but very little actually happened.  As I said, I could and did enjoy derping around with these characters for a while. I really enjoyed the more informal banter about cardamom flavoured pancakes and Hawaiian dancer lamps. But at some point we need to get out of The Shire.

In front of the lens, Kane Robinson/Kano (Top Boy) shows little range as Izi, playing him as looking conflicted and staring into the middle distance all the time. He doesn't have much help from a script that makes him taciturn so this role needed some good, nuanced facial acting and we just didn't get it.  We are on far more impressive ground with Jedaiah Bannerman, who is both heart-breaking and hilarious as Benji. He is an actor to watch.  I will also confess that I got a thrill from seeing Ian Wright playing the voice and heart of The Kitchen, a DJ who spins classic vinyl while preaching solidarity. As a Gooner, I could happily watch hours of Wrighty vibing along to classic tracks. I am pleased and relieved to say that this is no cheap cameo either: Lord Kitchener is the emotional heartbeat of the plot.

Behind the lens, production design did wonders with what I suspect was a small budget. I loved the grungy, vibrant, rotting, exciting, space of The Kitchen.  It felt real somehow, and something worth fighting for, which is really important. This also felt disturbingly like the present - maybe because the budget to do anything too radical wasn't there - maybe because the film-makers were making a point - maybe because I am so familiar with the shooting locations I knew exactly where they were. Isn't it funny how people wanting to create the future always come back to my beloved brutalist notorious Barbican Centre?  I also really loved the aural landscape of this film - the richness and diversity of hearing a cappella gospel; bass-thumping EDM; and classic tracks from Lord Kitchener. But films start and end with scripts and this one needed another pass.

THE KITCHEN has a running time of 104 minutes, is rated R, and will be released on Netflix in 2024.


Writer-director Justine Triet's Palme D'Or winning ANATOMY OF A FALL struck me less as a masterpiece of direction than a well-acted murder mystery.  

In my more mischievous moments I thought of it as BASIC INSTINCT as channelled through Agatha Christie.  Think about it:  Sandra Hueller (THE ZONE OF INTEREST) stars as an unapologetically successful, bisexual, author who is accused of killing her husband, of even referring to his future murder in her work, and has a somewhat flirtatious relationship with both the young journalist who interviews her at the start of the film, and with her attorney later on. In both films, we discuss gender roles, including toxic masculinity being undermined by a strong woman. In this case, the accused refuses to pander to her husband's need for more parental help and time to focus on his work. Bluntly, she tells him and the court to stop blaming her for his inability to finish his work, and his jealousy of her success. As the film progresses it becomes clear that her husband has been emasculated not only by her success but by her having an affair with a woman.  Both films also talk about consent. In BASIC INSTINCT it's sexual consent: in ANATOMY OF A FALL it's whether the husband recording his interactions with his wife was done with consent. 

Of course, this is a differently serious endeavour, and the genre it ploughs is that of courtroom drama.  The twist in the tale, or should I say tail, is that the key witness is the couple's son.  He has the cruel experience of hearing the state's prosecution of his mother, and has to parse his own memories of the fall, and prior conversations with his father, to work out what he heard, and what it meant. Milo Machado Graner is superb in this role.

I really liked how Triet raised questions about gender roles in marriage and how far a single argument or episode can be taken as indicative of a relationship as a whole. It's great to see Sandra as a well-drawn, nuanced strong female character who is allowed at times to be "unlikeable". And I love the moral ambiguity that is not entirely resolved, even when we do know whodunnit. Is this a Palme D'or winning film for me? No. But it's a very fine, grown-up, character-led drama of the type I am pleased is still getting made. 

ANATOMY OF A FALL has a running time of 152 minutes and is rated R. It played Cannes 2023 where it won not just the Palme D'Or but also the Palme Dog! It went on limited release in the USA this weekend and opens in the UK on November 10th.

POOR THINGS***** - BFI London Film Festival 2023 - Day 11

Iconic director of scabrous black comedies, Yorgos Lanthimos (THE FAVOURITE) returns to our screens with a steam-punk set, sexually charged satire so dark and strange that is left me gasping for breath.  Along with ZONE OF INTEREST, this film is doing something so audacious, so compelling and so far removed from the ordinary run of films that it deserves all the awards.  Whether it proves too strange, disturbing and provocative to appeal to a mainstream jury remains to be seen.

Emma Stone gives an astoundingly brave and career defining performance as Bella Baxter, a Frankenstein creation of adult woman and childlike brain.  We watch her rapid acquisition of language and intellectual ideas and sexual desires. Better explained in the source novel by Alasdair Gray, as she only knows her adult body, she has no shame or internalised misogyny. Bella is as free with her body as her thoughts.

Bella was brought to life by her guardian, Godwin (Willem Dafoe) and lives in an elaborate steampunk world of Lanthimos' vivid imagination. In Lanthimos' conception "God" is himself a victim of his surgeon-father's experiments.  Bella finds herself falling for the harmless, earnest Dr McCandless (Rami Youssef) but elopes with the charming, rogueish lawyer Duncan Wedderburn. It is here that her adventures, and ours, really begin, thanks to an uproariously funny and award worthy performance from Mark Ruffalo - apparently having the time of his life - and Lanthimos' beautifully reimagined  Mediterranean cities and Victorian hotel rooms. A shout out too for casting the iconic Hanna Shygulla as a wise old woman called Martha and Kathryn Hunter as a jaded Parisian madam. 

I cannot begin to describe the delights of a film that gives full flower to Lanthimos' dark gothic imagination - whether the production design of Baxter's house and successive interiors, to the wildly transgressive costumes that Bella wears, to the jarring, disturbingly brilliant score from Jerskin Fendrix. It is as if every element of the crew comes together in to deliver a heightened, sensual experience that frames and enables Stone's outlandish but also deeply moving performance. This is complete film-making of an extra-ordinary level of skill and accomplishment.  This is not to be missed, and on a big screen if possible.

POOR THINGS has a running time of 141 minutes and is rated R. It played Venice and London 2023. It will be released in the USA on December 8th.

CHICKEN RUN: THE DAWN OF THE NUGGET***** - BFI London Film Festival 2023 - Day 11

CHICKEN RUN: THE DAWN OF THE NUGGET is an absolute delight and a worthy sequel to the beloved first film. It has everything you want from a family adventure comedy - verbal, visual and physical humour; beautifully executed action set-pieces; characters you actually care about; and an uplifting message about caring about your community and female empowerment.

As the film opens, we see our liberated chickens living the good life in a chicken version of The Shire. Our hero and heroine Rocky and Ginger have a lovely baby daughter, Molly, who seems to have a spirit of adventure that her mother at least is eager to suppress.  They are so happy, and the world so unsafe, why leave their idyllic island?  All of this changes when Molly runs away to an apparently bucolic chicken fantasy land only to discover that it's an horrific factory designed to make chickens docile so that they make tastier nuggets. And so, after the escape movie if the original, we now get a heist movie, as Ginger Rocky and their friends have to break IN to the chicken farm to liberate their daughter. 

The resulting film is beautiful, smart, imaginative and endless fun. I wouldn't change a single stop-motion frame. It was wonderful to be back in the company of old friends, if newly (and controversially) voiced.  Bella Ramsay (The Last of Us) is wonderfully courageous and earnest as Molly and I particularly loved her rogueish rat uncles voiced by Romesh Ranganathan and Daniel Mays. But most of all it was wonderful to see the cine-literate team behind this film reference and re-imagine so many heist movie and evil lair tropes - not least British ones! - with just the right amount of mischief and irreverence.  We had a wonderful time, and our lovely youngsters were bouncing with delight all the way through. 

CHICKEN RUN: THE DAWN OF THE NUGGET is rated PG and has a running time of 97 minutes. It opens on limited release in UK cinemas on December 8th and then on Netflix globally on December 15th.

Saturday, October 14, 2023

THE END WE START FROM** - BFI London Film Festival 2023 - Day 10

Contemporary England is subject to horrific and sustained rainfall resulting in devastating flooding.  Low lying cities are laid to waste and people scramble to find shelter in higher ground. Soon humanity turns on itself, trampling on each other for scarce food parcels. Some choose to find shelter and blissful isolation in island communes. Others choose to cling onto their past, their memories and some kind of future. 

Within this world, we meet Jodie Comer (Killing Eve) - a young hairdresser - and her husband (Joel Fry).  She gives birth on the night of the flood, and our threesome have to somehow navigate this disaster with a small baby.  The high concept of the film is to show us the everyday frustrations of being a mother in this context. Comer's character finds companionship with another mother played by Katherine Waterston. It's a touching and rarely seen story of shared burdens, sympathy, and female friendship and strength. 

Mahalia Belo’s debut directorial feature has a lot going for it - an assured visual style; some stunning landscape shots; and some haunting CGI-effect depictions of a post-flood London achieved on what was presumably a small budget.  Belo even elicits good performances from her cast - not least the deeply talented Jodie Comer in the lead role, but also Katherine Waterston who arguably has the best-written character.  

The problem with the film, based on a novel by Megan Hunter adapted by screenwriter Alice Birch, is that it feels underwritten. There is very little that is new in disaster movies, to be sure, and this film has nothing new to say about the likely human response other than combining it with he insecurities and trials of new motherhood. Even worse, the characters feel underwritten. I didn't feel that Comer had anything much to do here (contrast with her exceptional performance in THE BIKERIDERS).  Poor Joel Fry has even less to do. There's a moment at the end which is meant to be very deeply affecting but as I didn't really believe in the characters of their relationship outside of Comer and Waterston, that moment had no impact on me. We also have a handful of cameos, but none of them really amount to much. 

So, while I very much look forward to seeing what Belo does next, I hope she has a stronger script to work with.

THE END WE START WITH has a running time of 96 minutes. It played Toronto and London 2023. It will be released in the USA on December 8th and in the UK on January 19th 2024.

THE ZONE OF INTEREST***** - BFI London Film Festival 2023 - Day 10

Writer-director Jonathan Glazer's astounding and haunting film THE ZONE OF INTEREST is worthy of all the festival buzz it has received since its world premiere at Cannes.  It is a film that is asks profound and disturbing questions about the morality of ordinary every day people. In stark opposition to ONE LIFE, this film suggests that the base attribute of humanity is indecency rather than decency.

The film is inspired by, rather than an actual adaptation of, Martin Amis' troubling novel of the same name.  Glazer strips away Amis' fictionalising to give us the stark truth of the Auschwitz concentration camp, informed by years of research and access to the site's archives. His film is actually filmed on location, with a replica of the camp Commandant's house built a few hundred yards from the original. There is a deeply authentic and disturbing sense of being in the presence of banal evil - in the landscape we have seen so many times in documentaries and in testimony from SHOAH.

The power of this film lies, I think, in the way in which it is meticulously constructed and the conceptual choices made by Glazer. The film is best described as working on three levels at once: the visual story; the sound design; and the score.

The first level is the visual story.  This is almost entirely that of the Hoess family with much of the action taking place in their house, breaking only as Rudolf is sent to Berlin for a temporary reassignment.  We are ensconced in the every day rhythms of the family - kids getting ready for school or playing in the pool - mother tending to her beloved garden or gossiping with her friends - servants laying the table.  As Hedwig Hoess' mother arrives for a visit we realise just how well this working class couple has done under the Nazi regime. The daughter of a cleaner is now the matriarch in a luxurious villa, with servants, mink coats, jewels. Hedwig has her pick of the luxury items stolen from Jews and despite a rather provincial ugly look clearly has a liking for finery. As for Rudolf he is what his children claimed - a loving father with a fondness of horses. They swim in the lake and paddle in their canoe.  

All of this is depicted with a natural casualness and intimacy that is afforded by strong performances from Christian Friedel (Babylon Berlin) as Rudolf and Sandra Hueller (TONI ERDMANN) as Hedwig. These performances are also enabled by a novel system of fixed cameras that allowed the performers to move through the villa more freely and stay in the moment. 

The key point of the visual narrative that we see the camp walls and the chimneys and the endless smoke but we never actually see the horrors behind those walls. (As such, this film would work well as a companion piece to the similarly formally audacious and haunting SAUL FIA.) This gives the film a kind of deliberate claustrophobia and a tension born of a false division between the idyllic family life and its surroundings. Indeed, the only time we break away from the perspective of the Hoess family is when Glazer uses thermal imaging to show a little Polish girl - almost like the heroine of a fairy tale - leaving a trail of apples and pears for the prisoners in the camp at night. It's as if her innate humanity and goodness can only be shown as the negative of the Nazi evil that we see in broad daylight.

This fake isolation is corrected by the second layer or element of the film which is Johnnie Burn's sound design. Because while we may not see the camp and its victims explicitly, we hear them constantly.  We hear the rumble of trains arriving and the screams of families being separated. We hear gunshots and horses rearing and panicked people.  Most horrifyingly, we hear the incinerators burn. To be fair we also see this in our peripheral vision - the orange lights at night as another selection is made. And we see the impact of this sound - of this actual immersion in murder - on the family. One of the daughters sleep walks. The mother-in-law comes to visit and then flees, unable to stomach the sounds and smell of burning. Rudolf, we later find, has some kind of stomach problem. And even if his conscious mind does not acknowledge the horror, his body is revolting against it. Strangely, it is only the wife Hedwig who seems to exhibit no horror, who is only angry when she thinks she might have to leave "this paradise".

So we have the visual story of what is happening with the family - and then we have the sound design telling us what is happening just outside of our vision. Both of these are scrupulously real and researched and cognitively dissonant. It's the dissonance that makes the film so hard to watch and so haunting.  The third element of this astounding film is Mica Levi's score.  This can only be described as the element that gives us the emotional response to the dissonance - to the truth of Auschwitz and of Hoess descending the final staircase into immorality.  It's a score like something out of a horror film, or how one might imagine Dante's Inferno to sound. It's aurally invasive and unreal and abstract and in some ways cathartic. Amidst this gentle family life, and off-screen constant rumbling machinery of murder, we need something that sounds like, and allows us, to scream in horror.

Part of me wishes Glazer had not broken our entrapment in this nightmare to show us footage of the modern Auschwitz museum. I feel the film may have worked better to not give us that escape, rather to mire us in hell. But this choice does not undercut just what a monumental achievement of cinema this film is. It is by far the most formally brave, and provocative film I have seen this year. 

THE ZONE OF INTEREST has a running time of 106 minutes. It played Cannes 2023 where Mica Levi won the Soundtrack Award, Jonathan Glazer won the FIPRESCI prize and the Grand Prize of the festival. It also played Toronto, Telluride and London 2023.  It opens in the USA on December 15th

Friday, October 13, 2023

BLACK DOG* - BFI London Film Festival 2023 - Day 9

BLACK DOG is the debut feature from actor-director George Jaques starring writer-actor Jamie Flatters (AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER) as Nathan and Keenan Munn-Francis as Sam.  The two teenagers meet when Sam is being mugged and Nathan apparently stops to help him out.  They run into each other again and end up sharing a trip up to Scotland from London.  Nathan is the more dominant character, even criticising Sam's driving. He's just left foster care and is going up to Scotland to find his sister. As for Sam, his reasons for going north are more mysterious. 

I think we are meant to find this road-trip deeply affecting, and to be moved by these two protagonists finding companionship and empathy in their traumatic childhood experiences.  But I found the film to be underwritten, over-acted by Flatters, and cliched in its direction. How many times have we seen a conflicted character jump into a swimming pool as a camera follows them under water in slo-mo? How many times have we seen a character plunge into the ocean in a moment of catharsis? I wanted more from this. I wanted to feel real deep human connection, and a unique moving reaction to spending intense time together. I was disappointed.

BLACK DOG has a running time of 96 minutes and had its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival.

ONE LIFE**** - BFI London Film Festival 2023 - Day 9

Director James Hawes (Black Mirror, Slow Horses) has made a straightforward but nonetheless affecting film about Sir Nicholas Winton, an English stockbroker who believed in common decency, and was therefore inspired to get as many refugee children out of Prague as humanly possible before the Nazis occupied the city and the borders were closed. Together with his colleagues he successfully organised visas, funds and foster homes, and managed to get over six hundred children out - many of them Jewish refugees from Austria and Germany and the occupied Sudetenland. It is unquestionable that if they had remained the vast majority would have been murdered in Nazi concentration camps. 

The film alternates between two time-lines. In wartime Prague, we have Johnny Flynn (EMMA) playing the straightforwardly efficient, decent, emphatic Nicky Winton.  We also get the treat of seeing Helena Bonham-Carter reprise her now oft-seen role of indomitable woman who will not be gainsaid, playing his mother.  We see how it was a team effort, with brave colleagues staying behind in Prague under the shadow of Nazi arrest - not least Romola Garai playing Doreen Warriner and Alex Sharp playing Trevor. In this section, the costumes, locations and atmosphere are all scrupulously well put together and we absolutely feel the tension of getting these kids out before the borders close.

In the 1980s timeline we see a now old Nicky Winton nagged by his lovely wife (Lena Olin) to clear out all of his old paperwork and find a suitable home for his scrapbook showing all his work in Prague. By chance, Robert Maxwell's wife comes to hear of it and gets it to Maxwell and into the press. (One forgets that before Maxwell became a monster he was actually a very courageous Jewish refugee who fought for the Czech partisans before making his way to England and helping the Allied war effort). This leads to the iconic and deeply moving creation (and recreation here) of the Esther Rantzen show That's Life where a humble Nicky Winton is surprised to meet the now grown up children he had saved.  I defy anyone not to be moved to tears by this: I am crying once again writing about it now.  

There is a simple beauty in the idea of ordinary people doing good.  And before one imagines this to be a poe-faced earnest film I assure you that's is also entertaining. There's a wonderful scene where Anthony Hopkins, playing the older Nicky Winton, has lunch with his old pal Martin, played by Jonathan Pryce, and it fees so effortless, mischievous, and fun. 

The way in which this film has been made and directed is not radical or revolutionary, and neither does it have to be. The story itself is powerful enough and concisely and expertly handled by writers Lucinda Coxon (THE DANISH GIRL) and Nick Drake. It has also never been of more relevance, as we grapple with our own refugee crises and tragically renewed anti-semitism.  As an audience in the Royal Festival Hall, we were witness to the incredibly moving site of some of the children Nicky saved, and their children and grandchildren, standing up and bearing witness to what had occurred.  How horrific that the BFI had to arrange extra security and bag checks.  How horrific that in my home city, in 2023, this is necessary. For that reason, and for the film's inherent worth, I truly hope it is seen by as wide an audience as possible.

ONE LIFE has a running time of 110 minutes. It played Toronto and London 2023.  It opens in the UK on January 1st 2024.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

THE BOOK OF CLARENCE* - BFI London Film Festival 2023 - Day 9

AD 33; Jerusalem. The apostle Thomas has a twin brother called Clarence who believes in knowledge, not faith, sells weed, and is deeply in debt to the local gangster. In yet another cockamamie scheme, Clarence thinks he will become an apostle too, to gain their protection, but they soon see through his schemes, with Thomas pouring scorn upon him. So Clarence decides to become a "new" messiah, replicating Jesus' "tricks" and raising the money from his believers to pay off his debts. Problem is, this newfound praise and money affords Clarence the opportunity to do something even more radical: to be good.  

Jeymes Samuel (THE HARDER THEY FALL) may well be the most frustrating writer-director currently working. I had hoped his sophomore film, THE BOOK OF CLARENCE, would exhibit more tonal consistency and discipline than his debut feature, but my word this film is just as indulgent.  All of which is disappointing because Samuel is clearly highly cine-literate, with a penchant for the excesses of spaghetti westerns and biblical epics.  He clearly has a good imagination and no shortage of big ideas.  But this film is neither consistently funny, nor ideologically radical.  I was hoping for something funny and zany and gonzo - something approaching the dangerous dark satire of THE LIFE OF BRIAN. Instead, I got a film that was surprisingly straightforwardly pro-religion.  What’s even worse is that in its serious moments, in the final half hour, we get some actually rather earnest and good acting from LaKeith Stanfield and Marianne Jean-Baptiste. But all of that is wasted when Jeymes Samuel can’t help inserting cheap gags. Dear lord this man needs a good producer, or editor, or mentor or something.  Something to pin him down and get the best out of him.

THE BOOK OF CLARENCE has a running time of 136 minutes. It played London 2023 and will be released in the USA on January 12th.


THE HOLDOVERS***** - BFI London Film Festival 2023 - Day 9

Alexander Payne returns to form with a film that is funny, affecting and just plain human.  It is a film that earns every emotional payoff over a steady, even lugubriously paced two hour plus running time.  By the end of it, one feels that one has come to know and care for these characters. I wasn’t ready to leave them.

The story takes place in an elite boarding school in 1970. It is an environment of extreme privilege, rubbing up against a world of extreme social inequality.  We are painfully aware that the rich kids go to College where the poor kids get drafted and die in Vietnam. The centre of the story is Paul Giamatti’s disliked, strict, but scabrously funny Ancient Civilisations teacher Mr Hunham.  Having failed a rich kid, Mr Hunham is punished by his headmaster by being left to steward the kids who can’t go home for Christmas.  Events, dear boy, events, soon shrink the “holdovers” down to three people: Mr Hunham; the school cook Mary (Da’vine Joy Randolph); and troubled but smart student Angus (newcomer Dominic Sessa).  As the film unfolds, we realise that these three unlikely bedfellows have more in common that might first appear to be the case. But this isn’t a forced revelation.  Each is grieving or thwarted by the vicissitudes of life.  We learn that no-one is a bad as we might think, nor as straightforward.

There is so much to love about this film - the way the 1970s style is recreated in its opening credits, the costumes and production design - the lightness of touch with which profound material is written and directed - and the uniformly superb performances. It would be justice for Paul Giamatti to be nominated for an Oscar, but my word, do not overlook stunning supporting performances from Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Dominic Sessa. I am sure I am not the only person excited to see what he does next.  It’s crazy to think that this is his first film - or indeed that this is the first feature script written by David Hemingson. Which just goes to show the consistent genius of Alexander Payne in talent spotting such a beautiful script and casting it so well.  Kudos to all involved.

THE HOLDOVERS played Toronto and London 2023 and goes on release in the USA on November 3rd and in the UK on January 19th 2024. 

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

NYAD***** - BFI London Film Festival 2023 - Day 8

NYAD destroyed me in the best possible way. It made me laugh, it made me crush on Jodie Foster, it made me sit on the edge of my seat and my heart-beat race, it made me cry ugly happy tears. This is a movie that is just to well put together, so compelling, so engaging, full of such wonderful characters, that I did not want it to end. I am Team Nyad. The only slightly sad thing is that as much as I suspect Annette Bening is using this as her shot at an Oscar, the actor who steals every scene is Jodie Foster.

Bening stars as Diana Nyad, a real life champion swimmer whose dream was to swim a hundred miles non-stop from Cuba to Florida through shark-infested water. That dream eluded her in her thirties, but pissed off at turning sixty and being written off, she decides to make another attempt. The film makes it clear that Nyad is not short of ego and that kind of ruthless selfishness that makes winners win, but it also makes it clear that marathon open-water swimming is a team-sport.  Nyad, for all her stubborn egomania, is beloved. Most of all, by her multi-decade best friend and partner in crime Bonnie, played with swagger, charisma and great fun by Jodie Foster.  

As we follow Diana in her quest, we are always aware of the dangers and the stakes thanks to clear and crisp direction from Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin.  They beautifully weave in flashbacks and audio from the real, younger Nyad, explaining the physical and mental challenge of ocean swimming, and make us feel part of her ramshackle team of navigator, captain, shark and jellyfish experts.  The result is a film no less compelling than the directors' previous Oscar winning documentary film FREE SOLO. The idea of having documentarians fictionalise this story is inspired because it so beautifully takes the best of the both formats. I cannot recommend the resulting film highly enough, if for no other reason that to see Jodie Foster have more fun on screen than I have ever seen her have.  And just to see older women succeed, and female friendship and excellence celebrated. 

NYAD is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 121 minutes. It played Telluride, Toronto and London 2023.  It opens in the USA on October 20th in cinemas and on November 3rd on Netflix.

FOE** - BFI London Film Festival 2023 - Day 8

Another day, another festival film that is well-acted and directed but where the story isn’t really worth the candle.  Because make no mistake, whatever the advertised description, FOE isn’t really a sci-fi film about a dystopian climate-ravaged near-future:  it’s actually a relationship drama about a bad marriage.  Which is not to say that you can’t make a compelling film about a bad marriage - just look at Noah Baumbach’s 2019 festival favourite MARRIAGE STORY, or pretty much the entire oeuvre of Ingmar Bergman. But FOE, and PRISCILLA, and MAESTRO, and FINGERNAILS, are all basically bad marriage dramas and none of them are compelling.

So let’s start with the sci-fi conceit. Writer-director Garth Davis (LION) has no track record in writing sci-fi, and maybe no interest in writing sci-fi, and it shows. He is, however, adapting a book by Iain Reid which may get into this in more depth. What we get on screen is the story of a woman, Hen, who has fallen out of love with her husband Junior, then falls in love with his AI Cylon replacement instead.  This is a tale an old as time, or at least as old as Martin Guerre (better known to western audiences as that Richard Gere film SOMMERSBY).  If you want to get into the nuances of how this might play out with AI alternates, then I would once again urge you to watch Ronald D Moore’s Battlestar Galactica remake.  By contrast, FOE isn’t really interested in mining those nuances.

Okay, so grant the movie the grace of parking the sci-fi conceit to one side.  How does it play as straightforward relationship drama?  We are on stronger ground here thanks to strong lead performances from two very talented actors: Saoirse Ronan (LITTLE WOMEN) as Hen and Paul Mescal (ALL OF US STRANGERS) as Junior.  But when two people drift apart simply through over-familiarity and isolation - when there is no actual dramatic event that brings them into free-fall (not even in this sci-if conceit) then what are we left with? Two hours of mild bickering and mild make-up sex.  It just ain’t enough to fill a near two-hour running time.

This is all a tremendous shame as the crew is as impressive as the cast. I loved cinematographer Matyas Erdely’s sepia-toned interiors and drought-scape exteriors.   I really loved the score by Oliver Coates, Park Jiha and Agnes Obel. In fact, it’s the score more than anything in the writing that reminds us we are in a sinister, dystopian sci-fi film.  I also really loved some of Garth Davis’ visual flourishes, when they sporadically occur. There’s a great scene near the end which, without spoiling it, involves a vacuum and plastic, that was absolutely visually arresting. It just wasn’t enough to save me from boredom.

FOE has a running time of 110 minutes and is rated R. It opens in the USA on October 6th and in the UK on October 20th.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

MAESTRO*** - BFI London Film Festival 2023 - Day 7

MAESTRO was the first of two films I watched today that were well directed and acted, but where the chosen subject matter was not worthy of the efforts taken. Basically this film can be summarised as "wife is cool with her husband's bisexuality until she isn't, but stays married anyways".  I mean, okay. Domestic drama is okay I guess.  And there's a lot of great dramatic acting showing this. But oh my god, with these performers, and this direction, it could've done so much more.

The film is written by, directed by, and stars Bradley Cooper of THE HANGOVER fame.  He is making a very deliberate career handbrake-turn into wannabe auteur status by telling the story of Leonard Bernstein - acclaimed composer, conductor, educator, performer.  What's interesting, and ultimately frustrating, is that he chooses to do so solely through the lens of Bernstein's marriage to the actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan - SHE SAID). 

In a sense, this is a really interesting thing to do. Montealegre was apparently a significant artist in her own right. She was apparently drawn to Bernstein's genius and was progressive enough to accept him as bisexual and to tolerate his affairs as long as he was discreet. Until she wasn't. She stays, but explains it as a kind of sick joke of not knowing herself enough. She thought she was modern enough to not mind, but was actually more in need of Bernstein's attention than she had anticipated. 

As for Bernstein, in Cooper's conception, his promiscuous bisexuality was merely another aspect of his greed for life in general. He wanted more of everything. He rejected people's expectations that he would focus on becoming "just" the first great American conductor, or another great American composer. He wanted it all. He wanted to compose a film score, or a broadway musical, or teach at Tanglewood, as much as he wanted to write a great orchestral work or conduct a great orchestra. And in this life of having it all, those around him were just squeezed out for time. 

The tragedy of this film is that in this beautifully-acted, rendered domestic drama, we never see the wider social or political ramifications.  Because for Leonard Bernstein his identity WAS political.  Being Jewish, not anglicising one's name, playing in Palestine and then Israel, was indeed a political act.  Being bisexual, indiscreetly so, was and arguably remains a political act. But Cooper isn't interested in that. Until he is.  In a tonally jarring near-final scene we find an old, widowed, fat, sweaty Bernstein dancing in a 1980s nightclub with a far younger male student. Had I been watching a film about consensual bisexual affairs or a version of TAR?  I felt blind-sided by this scene.  I wished the film had been dealing in this stuff all along. But it hadn't, so why the left-turn now?

Still, there's a lot to like in this film, and I will for sure watch Cooper's next directorial venture. The first hour in particular is kinetic and assured, with real visual flair.  Matthew Libatique's cinematography is as good as anything he's done since BLACK SWAN.  And kudos to Cooper for getting Bernstein's physicality, voice and conducting style, not least thanks to some absolutely superb make-up and prosthetic work. As for Mulligan, there's a single dramatic confrontation in the marital apartment that is a tour de force for both, but especially her. She is always excellent and especially so here. In smaller parts, I really liked Maya Hawke as their eldest child. 

But if you're coming for Bernstein the musician you are going to be disappointed, as I was. We only truly see about seven minutes of him conducting near the end of the film. It's the finale of Mahler 2 and it's stunning to behold. Like Bernstein, I wanted more. 

MAESTRO has a running time of 129 minutes and is rated R. It played Venice and London 2023 and will be released on December 20th on Netflix.

PRISCILLA** - BFI London Film Festival 2023 - Day 7

PRISCILLA is the second film of the day that is well enough directed and acted but where you leave wondering why on earth it was made. The plot can be summarised as "child is groomed by celebrity, coercively controlled, is fine with it until she isn't". Maybe there's a film in that. This film isn't it.  

When we meet Priscilla she a fourteen year old and very visibly a young immature girl.  The way in which Elvis Presley's fellow US soldier picks her up for a party with Elvis feels like he has procured her.  Writer-director Sofia Coppola might have made more of her being underage than she chooses to. Important scenes are eliminated.  We are left wondering exactly what Elvis said to her parents to make them send her to the United States and sign over guardianship. It's all left very vague and thus remains frustrating.  Similarly, we never know if Elvis has a pattern of going for underage girls, or whether Priscilla is "special". It's clear that while their relationship is more or less chaste for a while (at least according to her), he is satisfying his needs elsewhere.

Meanwhile for pretty much the entire running time of the film, Priscilla is a mute doll, whom Elvis dresses up.  She looks like a doll next to him, especially given actor Jacob Elordi's height.  Coppola doesn't give her much of an interior life, and while I felt sorry for her, after two hours I didn't feel as if I knew her.  Maybe that's because until she left Elvis, she hadn't been allowed to get to know herself? Either way, it makes for rather a dull film.

All of which is rather a shame. Caillee Spaeny is visually compelling as Priscilla even when she is given little to do. Jacob Elordi gives an effortless performance as Elvis, impressing with his accent-work.  But I just wanted more.

While my mind was wondering, I was thinking what might have attracted Coppola to this story, and kept seeing parallels to her MARIE ANTOINETTE. Both begin with a barely teenager plucked from her loving but provincial family home and taken to a glamorous estate that will become her prison, complete with courtiers. Both begin and end when she arrives and then leaves. Both see a young girl overwhelmed by rules about what she can do, who she can see, what she can wear.  Both see their hair become taller as the years progress. Both decline to show us life beyond the gates.  Even in shot framing and construction there are similar choices. Compare and contrast the egregious shots of luscious glutinous food in MARIE ANTOINETTE with the scene in which successive plates of junk food are placed outside of Elvis' door. 

The difference is that MARIE ANTOINETTE had stakes. It wasn't just an unhappy marriage. It was a political crisis. PRISCILLA is "just" the story of an unhappy marriage.  If Coppola had successfully mined Priscilla's interior life, in the way that made me cry for Marie-Antoinette, that would've been enough.  But it is not enough here.

PRISCILLA is rated R and has a running time of 113 minutes. It played Venice and London 2023.  It opens in the US on November 3rd.

Monday, October 09, 2023

FINGERNAILS** - BFI London Film Festival 2023 - Official Competition - Day 6

FINGERNAILS is a social satire that reads like LOBSTER-lite in a retconned 1980s America - sort of like Lanthimos meets Gondry but with a gentler more sporadic sense of humour.  I suspect that inside Christos Nikou's two hour film there's an absolutely cracking one hour episode of Black Mirror waiting to be edited out on Final Cut Pro. 

The high concept of the film is that couples can check if they are really in love by allowing scientists to yank off a fingernail each and run some kind of cockamamie test. The problem is that most couples, who might have been quite happy, discover that the computer says they are not compatible. Similarly, our protagonist Anna (Jessie Buckley) has tested positive, but is actually running through the motions with her boyfriend Ryan (The Bear's Jeremy Allen White).  The person she's actually attracted to is her colleague at the Love Institute, played by ROGUE ONE's Riz Ahmed. 

I guess there's some interesting stuff here about the social pressures of the wellness industry making you second guess your own instincts. But we've seen this done better, darker, nastier and frankly funnier before. The only real saving grace of this version is Riz Ahmed, who is really very funny indeed.

FINGERNAILS is rated R and has a running time of 113 minutes. It played Toronto, San Sebastian and London 2023. It goes on limited release in the USA on October 27th before being released on streaming on Apple TV a week later globally.

DEAR JASSI*** - BFI London Film Festival 2023 - Official Competition - Day 5

Tarsem Singh's latest movie is a hard-hitting true crime story that sheds light on the phenomenon insultingly known as Honour Killing. Based on a famous and now rather historic case, this important film shows us how the Indian diaspora has taken its cultural norms to its new host nations, both the good and the bad, and seen the latter calcify into something unbending and ruthless. (I know whereof I speak here, as a second generation Punjabi immigrant in England). 

The first hour of the film is a sweet, earnest and almost naive love story between Jassi and Mithoo. The former is a Canadian citizen, living an outwardly wealthy modern life, but we can tell from her home set-up that her family is still incredibly traditional and controlling. They live in a multi-generational joint family, where even the married adult children do not establish themselves as independent, and Jassi is dropped off and picked up from work, her pay packet taken by her parents.  On her annual vacation she goes back to family relations in northern India who are similarly controlling. Her cousin Santo is not allowed to date either. But despite all of these restrictions she still manages to meet and fall in love with a handsome Kabbadi player called Mithoo. The problem is that her family will never approve of her marrying "beneath" her to a lower caste uneducated poor boy.  

The second hour of the film becomes far darker as the naivety of the young lovers is met by the intransigence of her family. This gives the film more energy and narrative drive.  The first half is sometimes cloyingly slow-paced. We are as desperate as Jassi for Mithoo to do something. But the second half of the film is a Kafka-esqe world of immigration rules coupled with the highest stakes of whether the couple can be reunited.  I won't spoil the events if you are not familiar with them, or cases of this type. Suffice to say that Jassi's big mistake is to go back to India where bribes allow her family to act with impunity. This is not to say that there aren't horrific acts of violence against Asian girls in Britain, but clearly justice is even more corrupt over there. 

I am full of praise for Tarsem Singh both in his tenacity for bringing this important subject to the screen but also in the way in which he handled it. We get his beautiful trademark visuals, helped by DP Brendan Galvin, but there is a restraint in what they are showing and how. This is not touristic magisterial India but everyday rural Punjab in all its beauty but also its run-down ramshackle chaos. Without spoiling it, the way he handles the pivotal final scenes is masterful and searing but never exploitative.

DEAR JASSI has a running time of 132 minutes. It played Toronto and London 2023.

ALL OF US STRANGERS**** - BFI London Film Festival 2023 - Day 5

ALL OF US STRANGERS is the latest film from Andrew Haigh (WEEKEND) and yet another beautifully crafted, intimate, emotionally affecting film. It stars Andrew Scott (Sherlock) as Adam, a gay, forty something screenwriter struggling to deal with the death of his parents when he was a child. On successive visits to his childhood home he imagines he can tell them about his life now, come out to them, and tell them how the world has changed for him.  The scenes can only be described as truly heartbreaking. Adam flits between adulthood and childhood, delighting in being able to be cared for by his mum and dad, but then also bristling at their attitudes to his sexuality. They tell them they are proud of him and he is so riven with self-doubt and pain that he cannot accept the complement. Claire Foy and Jamie Bell are wonderful in these smaller but viscerally emotional roles.  

I found the present day relationship less successful. Adam strikes up a friendship with another man in his apartment block: they are seemingly the only two people home alone at Christmas.  Harry (Paul Mescal) seems more comfortable in his skin at first, or at least more able to articulate his need for connection and intimacy. But as the film progresses we realise that he is also deeply vulnerable.

Andrew Haigh's previous films showed a willingness to mine the emotional nuances of modern relationships. But I feel ALL OF US STRANGERS is a leap forward in its technical skill and visual and aural creativity. In particular, a bravura central scene in a nightclub shows a director increasingly confident in his work and willing to push himself stylistically.

ALL OF US STRANGERS has a running time of 105 minutes. It played London 2023. It goes on release in the USA on December 22nd and in the UK on January 26th.