Sunday, January 29, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Not One of Us

No car chases, no computer graphics, very low tech. Must be England 1973. The pace is leisurely and the dialogue rich and revealing. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the vintage John Le Carré novel is probably not for Matt Damon or Daniel Craig fans.

It assumes that its audience have some sense of Cold War history. In fact it seems targeted at baby boomers - those who read the book and saw the TV series but have difficulty remembering the intricacies of the plot and characters. This reviewer was in that category like many of the cinema-goers attending.

Gary Oldman as George Smiley does a serviceable but lacklustre job. Alec Guinness showed in the 1979 TV series that dour doesn't have to be bland. At times it seemed that Gary was mimicking Guinness. The rest of the cast are real pros, though John Hurt seemed too debauched as Control, but doesn't he always. At the other end, Colin Firth lacked a rough edge in his role.

Have to wonder what the current generation would make of this nostalgia flick, if they bother to see it. Director Tomas Alfredson has created a world that never existed yet somehow rings true.

I was reminded of Sir Humphrey Appleby's great line in Yes Prime Minister when he learns that his predecessor was a Russian spy. How could "one of us" be "one of them"? Unfortunately the film leaves that question unanswered.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Melancholia: not the way the world ends

If you didn’t know that Melancholia is a film about the end of the world, the opening is a plot spoiler in itself. This slow-moving prologue, set to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, is a director’s tribute - part 2001: A Space Odyssey and part Hitchcock dream sequence.

It’s a multi-genre affair. As Sci-Fi, the science is mostly fantasy. As the apocalypse approaches, cars won’t start but the electric golf buggy does. Just suspend all disbelief at the beginning.

It has all the key elements of the wedding movie complete with bizarre, dysfunctional family. Mother (Charlotte Rampling) is the embarrassing speechmaker. (John Hurt) is the unlikely father, a serial sleaze enchanted with womanhood in the guise of numerous Bettys. Though he’s not the one to have gratuitous sex in a bunker.

At several levels, it is a bitter, mostly humourless society farce. Justine’s tagline for the boss of her Public Relations firm: “Nothing is too good for you!” The setting is a private castle complete with 18-hole golf course, bridal path and exquisite gardens. It’s a biting but essentially unoriginal satire of Western decadence and the conspicuously wealthy. Lars seems to be trying to prove that old aphorism about not being rich and happy. He can’t be a golfer.

The cast is a high-powered gathering. Apparently, Kirsten Dunst was not first choice for the lead but she fits perfectly. Her droopy eyelids and glassy stare are naturals for the deeply disturbed Justine. Charlotte Gainsbourg is convincing as timid sister Claire who fits the other definition of melancholia of having “ill-grounded fears”, except that this time she’s on the money.

Kiefer Sutherland as brother-in-law John seems happier as filthy-rich capitalist than as astronomer buff. His timely exit is as much a plot device as a statement on his character. He just doesn’t need to come between the sisters any longer.

The two Skarsgårds, Alexander as naïve, reality-challenged husband Michael and Stellan as evil boss Jack, are quite adequate in their roles but they’re not the main game. In fact Abraham, Justine’s favourite mount from the flash stables, will probably remain more memorable. Cameron Spurr, as Claire’s young son Leo, is no scene-stealer but he stays the course.

Melancholia is clearly an allegory. You can pick your own lessons. Justine is not just suffering from the 21st Century pandemic of depression. She is surrounded by a pack of cynical black dogs who seem to have lost the capacity for happiness.

In some ways she belongs to the dark side of 19th century romanticism. Her melancholy finds no joy in anything. Ironically, she discovers calm, purpose and inner peace when preparing her magic cave for the end.

I was more taken with this film than I had expected. It was refreshing not to use the word fluff as we left the cinema. Lars von Trier wears the crown of auteur self-consciously. As writer/director of Melancholia, he tries his best to make a grand statement about the human comedy.