The Little Stranger

Year: 2018
Directed by:  Lenny Abrahamson 
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter

Written by Fiona Underhill

The Gothic genre has had something of a revival in recent years, particularly focusing on the theme of gas-lighting, which feels especially relevant now in the era of “Time’s Up” and “Me Too.” We have had ‘Stoker’ (2013), ‘Crimson Peak’ (2015), ‘Lady Macbeth’ (2016), ‘My Cousin Rachel’ (2017), ‘The Beguiled’ (2017) and ‘Phantom Thread’ (2017) all featuring this theme and dealing with the reliability of protagonists and narrators. They have all been influenced (directly or indirectly) by Gothic literature (and in some cases Southern Gothic), Daphne Du Maurier, Dickens, and Alfred Hitchcock and are all right up my street. Now comes an adaptation of ‘The Little Stranger’ from author Sarah Waters, set in a haunted mansion in my home county of Warwickshire.

Director Lenny Abrahamson is best known for directing ‘Room’, the film which won Brie Larson the Best Actress Oscar. He has an eclectic CV, which also includes ‘Frank’, the tale of Frank Sidebottom, starring Michael Fassbender. The narrator of this tale is Doctor Faraday, played by Domhnall Gleeson, who is having an incredibly prolific few years, juggling his ‘Star Wars’ commitments with the likes of ‘American Made’ and ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’. He is a fantastic actor and I’m glad he’s finding so much work. Caroline Ayres is played by Ruth Wilson, who is mainly known for her role in the TV show ‘The Affair’ and it is somewhat surprising to see her cast as a ‘dowdy old maid’ character here, who is repeatedly referred to as being challenged in the looks department. One of my favourite actors, Will Poulter is typically excellent here as Roderick Ayres, a young man who was badly wounded in the war and is now struggling to manage the family estate. Poulter was recently seen in ‘Kids in Love’ and ‘Detroit’ but I will always associate him fondly with ‘Son of Rambow’ and ‘Voyage of the Dawn Treader’, where he showed enormous potential as a child actor. The Ayres family is rounded out with Mrs Ayres, played by living legend Charlotte Rampling, whose career is showing no signs of slowing down, in fact she has starred in ‘45 Years’, ‘Broadchurch’, ‘London Spy’ and ‘The Sense of an Ending’ (to name just a few high profile roles) within the last three years.

Doctor Faraday comes from humble beginnings and has always had a fascination with Hundreds Hall – the local manor and estate. As a child, he attends a fete there and he finds himself jealous of Suki Ayres, the little girl who lives there. Faraday’s mother had been a maid at the hall, which gives him access to through the hallowed doors for a brief time. It turns out that shortly after this happy occasion, Suki dies from an illness. Mrs. Ayres then goes on to have two more children – Caroline and Roderick. As an adult, Faraday is initially called to Hundreds Hall to attend to Betty (the maid), who has been spooked by something. He then decides to stay on, to try out some experimental treatments on Roderick’s legs. He becomes closer to Caroline, but both Roderick and Mrs. Ayres become troubled by strange occurrences in the hall.

The film plays with the reliability of the narrator well, leaving you questioning if any of the characters are trust-worthy by the end. Gleeson’s performance anchors the film masterfully, keeping Faraday’s true motivations hidden beneath layers of decorum and pride. The costume and production design really contribute to the atmosphere, particularly in depicting the crumbling pile, having fallen on hard times. Don’t go in expecting a horror film – it doesn’t even particularly have jump-scares, just a build up of a feeling of uncertainty and dread. As I said at the start, I really appreciate this recent trend in films  – where you question the story unfolding before your eyes because of the point-of-view that you’re seeing it from. Three more recent films; ‘I, Tonya’, ‘American Animals’ and ‘Wild Nights with Emily’ have also played with this format and I think it is incredibly fitting for the times of “fake news” we are living through now. It makes you work as an audience member and teaches you not to just accept the framing of the narrative you are being presented with. You realise that if another character within the story told it from their perspective, you might get a totally different version. Challenging the audience to think and to be a more active participant in the viewing experience is only a good thing, in my books. I look forward to more films that do the same.

FIONA’S RATING:

3.5

 

 

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Red Sparrow

Year: 2018
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Jeremy Irons, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker

WRITTEN BY: CHRIS GELDERD

This 2018 American spy thriller, directed by Francis Lawrence and based on the 2013 novel of the same name by Jason Matthews, stars Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons.

Following a career-ending injury, former Russian ballerina Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is offered a new life and a new place in society to help both her country and continue to care for her sick mother. Her uncle Ivan (Schoenaerts) sends her to train with Russian intelligence to become a ‘Sparrow’ – a covert spy.

Ivan is working alongside General Korchnoi (Irons) and Colonel Zacharov (Hinds) to observe known CIA operative Nate Nash (Edgerton) who is working with a mole in the Russian government. It is Nash who Dominika, fully trained, is assigned to in order to gain his trust and find the mole.

But Nash feels Dominika wasn’t born to serve the state – he offers her a chance to act as a double agent and help the CIA bring down a traitor in their own agency and end corruption within the Russian government. The fate of nations rests on just who Dominika will pledge her allegiance to…

With a title akin to that of a John Le Carré novel and evoking such celluloid thrillers such as ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ or, most recently, ‘Atomic Blonde’, this espionage thriller doesn’t attempt to re-write the genre, but it does attempt to set it out of the usual template we are used to and on the whole it works because of it.

Jennifer Lawrence only appears on my radar thanks to the ‘X-Men’ universe and her role as shape-shifter Mystique. I’ve never seen ‘Hunger Games’ and a few of her other roles have cropped up, but don’t linger in my conscious for long after the credits roll. For the first time, I think she has nailed a role for mature audiences and gives a pretty good stab at things. From the ballet which she deftly carries out, to the basic Hollywood-Russian accent (could be worse) and the way she handles herself with quiet confidence and fragile emotion, Lawrence thankfully let me forget her otherwise annoyingly brattish, egotistical and otherwise simply self-centred attitude off camera to invest in her mature Dominika, a world away from American Lawrence, for these 2 hours.

Sharing the spotlight is the poor man’s (or some now say rich man’s) Jeremy Renner in the guise of Joel Edgerton. The man can act just fine, and he constantly gives himself to the material on offer to pull out a good performance. Here his CIA agent Nate Nash goes up against both Russian and American governments to be the spy we can at least have faith in fighting the good fight. He’s likeable and keeps things moving with his urgency and determination to break down an unbreakable Sparrow, which leaves his character in a good position as you always question if he’s going to make it to the end credits without being double-crossed or killed.

The supporting cast also nail their performances and carry over the accents that Hollywood teaches them for Russian officials and agents. Jeremy Irons is at his brooding, menacing best here but still somehow feels under-used, which is a shame because his role could be that of Simon Gruber 20 years later. Matthias Schoenaerts has an aura about him you feel comfortable yet uneasy about during his screen time which is exactly what is needed, and Charlotte Rampling, Ciaran Hinds, and Joely Richardson offer their veteran talent to flesh out a cast who you can really get behind and see their pieces in the puzzle.

Story-wise, the film (from the novel remember) doesn’t try to give us anything too complex or ground-breaking which is what I want in these things. I want something that has worked for years and years, just presented in a fresh way. It’s these factors that lifted ‘Red Sparrow’ into something much more enjoyable than if it had been a carbon-copy of what we’ve seen before where even the cast couldn’t have elevated things with their tools.

The opening minutes are some of the most well shot and scored moments I’ve seen recently. Simple, but effective. The haunting and powerful music by James Newton Howard and cinematography by Jo Willems introduces us without the need for dialogue to paint a post-Cold War Russia and America, present-day countries that are rife with corruption and covert counter intelligence, more relevant than ever in our President Trump era.

The look and sound of ‘Red Sparrow’ is both beautiful and grim at the same time. The elegance and pride bleed off the screen when we see the glory of Mother Russia, but in a heartbeat turns to a dark and working-class world were nothing can guarantee your safety in the eyes of spies. Moscow, London, and Budapest are stunning cities and the perfect backdrop to the staged spy game, and nothing is really held back by director Francis Lawrence. It’s a mature film for mature audiences; it doesn’t shy away from the violence and brutality, yet is never gratuitous. There is nothing we don’t see, hear or feel that isn’t important to our characters and story, and plenty of moments had me wincing and grimacing in my seat. And it was brilliant. Just the reaction I wanted from a film shying away from watering down content for young audiences.

And as for the idea of exploitation of women, I for one found the sexual slant of this story tasteful and powerful and respectful to both Jennifer Lawrence in her portrayal and that of women in general. With a tidal wave sweeping through Hollywood about equality, the idea of using one’s body as a weapon initially seems to U-turn the movement, but actually, it is a raw and natural thing for these hard-edged and brutal spies to do. The mind and body is a weapon, and we are reminded that through brilliant training sequences from the delicious 007 Rosa Klebb-esque Charlotte Rampling.

The male targets come across as single-minded and stupid and blind to everything around them when presented with a suggestive glimpse of flesh or wandering hand. Lawrence plays it perfectly and never looks or feels exploited, at least in my opinion. It’s a harsh, brutal world of covert intelligence set in a totally different world than the West understands, and so in that respect, it makes perfect sense and easily throws us out of our comfort zone.

It’s these elements that drag it above standard American-based thrillers. While the story sags a little in the middle, easily allowing us to shave a good 10 minutes off the talky-talky moments, the flow is bookended with tight sequences that offer thrills, tension and bloody action without ever having to feel they need to resort to loud, physics-defying shoot-outs, car chases or dumb action sequences.

It’s a grounded and down to earth film with a climax you may or may not see coming as the pieces fall into place, but it’s done in a neat way that you’ll be happy with if you’ve enjoyed the journey through the beauty and danger of Capitalist West v Communist East.

CHRIS’ RATING: 9/10

First Trailer For ‘Red Sparrow’ Lands Online!

“Dominika Egorova is many things. A devoted daughter determined to protect her mother at all costs. A prima ballerina whose ferocity has pushed her body and mind to the absolute limit. A master of seductive and manipulative combat.

When she suffers a career-ending injury, Dominika and her mother are facing a bleak and uncertain future. That is why she finds herself manipulated into becoming the newest recruit for Sparrow School, a secret intelligence service that trains exceptional young people like her to use their bodies and minds as weapons.

After enduring the perverse and sadistic training process, she emerges as the most dangerous Sparrow the program has ever produced. Dominika must now reconcile the person she was with the power she now commands, with her own life and everyone she cares about at risk, including an American CIA agent who tries to convince her he is the only person she can trust.”

Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker and Jeremy Irons
Release Date: 2nd March 2018

Oscars 2016: The Nominees

The second biggest awards show in the film calendar (after the JumpCut UK Film Awards, of course) is feeling a hell of a lot closer now, after the nominees for the 88th Academy Awards were announced this week. 

Not surprisingly, ‘The Revenant’, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s critically-acclaimed follow-up to his Best Picture win of last year (Birdman), leads the way with 12 nominations. The Academy also pleased film fans everywhere with a surprising 10 nominations for everyone’s favourite action film, ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’.

As usual, there’s plenty of controversy and public outcry, with scripts from Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight) and Aaron Sorkin (Steve Jobs) snubbed, and an apparent lack of diversity still plaguing the awards show. 

Will Leo finally win the Oscar? Can Iñárritu win back-to-back director gongs? Or will George Miller and his brainchild ‘Mad Max’ steal the show? Here’s all the nominees, plus a few predictions as to who might win on the night (although, if my earlier predictions of the Best Picture nominees are anything to go by, I wouldn’t pay much attention to my guesses).


BEST PICTURE
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Brooklyn
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant (our winner)
Room
Spotlight

BEST ACTOR
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Matt Damon, The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant (our winner)
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

BEST ACTRESS
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room (our winner)
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies (our winner)
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol (our winner)
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

DIRECTING
Adam McKay – The Big Short
George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road (our winner)
Alejandro G. Iñárritu – The Revenant
Lenny Abrahamson – Room
Tom McCarthy – Spotlight

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Anomalisa (our winner)
Boy and the World
Inside Out
Shaun the Sheep Movie
When Marnie Was There

COSTUME DESIGN
Carol (our winner)
Cinderella
The Danish Girl
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Amy
Cartel Land
The Look of Silence
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Winter on Fire

DOCUMENTARY SHORT
Body Team
Chau, Beyond the Lines
Claude Lanzmann
A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
Last Day of Freedom

MAKEUP AND HAIR STYLING
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window and Disappeared
The Revenant

ORIGINAL SONG
“Earned It” – Fifty Shades of Grey
“Manta Ray” – Racing Extinction
“Simple Song #3” – Youth
“Til It Happens to You” – The Hunting Ground
“Writing’s on the Wall” – Spectre

ANIMATED SHORT
Bear Story
Prologue
Sanjay’s Super Team
We Can’t Live Without Cosmos
World of Tomorrow (our winner)

SOUND EDITING
Mad Max: Fury Road
Sicario
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (our winner)
The Martian
The Revenant

FILM EDITING
The Big Short
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant (our winner)
Spotlight
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Embrace of the Serpent
Mustang
Son of Saul (our winner)
Theeb
A War

ORIGINAL SCORE
Bridge of Spies
Carol
The Hateful Eight
Sicario (our winner)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

PRODUCTION DESIGN
Bridge of Spies
The Danish Girl
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian (our winner)
The Revenant

VISUAL EFFECTS
Ex Machina
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (our winner)

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
The Big Short
Brooklyn
Carol
The Martian (our winner)
Room

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Bridge of Spies
Ex Machina (our winner)
Inside Out
Spotlight
Straight Outta Compton

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Carol
The Hateful Eight
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
Sicario (our winner)