ARGO

Stars 4

Ben Affleck’s impressive directing career goes from strength to strength in this funny, thrilling and barely believably heist based on a true story.

In 1979 the US embassy in Iran has been overrun and the staff taken hostage. Six have managed to escape and are hiding in the Canadian embassy and the CIA have a very short time to extricate them without the Iranians finding out and executing them.

Much to his bosses mistrust, Ben Affleck’s top CIA agent decides that the only way to safely liberate the escapees is to create a fake science fiction movie called ‘Argo’ and pretend they are part of his film crew.

Affleck the actor is in excellent form as the taciturn agent, hiding his Hollywood looks behind a dodgy ‘70’s beard and hair combo, so when he drives around in a camper van he resembles the character, Shaggy, from TV’s Scooby Do cartoons.

A great cast features a strong turn from Victor Garber as the Canadian ambassador, with  excellent comic support from Alan Arkin and John Goodman Hollywood producers roped in to bring authenticity to Affleck’s scheme.

The film moves smoothly between the mostly comic US scenes and the Iranian scenes of deadly tension. There are a lot good jokes at Hollywood’s expense which also serve to highlight the seriousness of the mission.

Real TV footage from the era is integrated into the movie and helps to create the atmosphere of murderous disorder and paranoia of a country under martial law, and the film is careful to highlight how there were Iranians who risked their aiding the US civilians.

Produced by George Clooney, this confident, well judged and gripping movie downplays American triumphalism in favour of focusing on squeezing every particle of entertainment and tension from the human drama.

COLETTE

Cert 15 112mins Stars 3

Keira Knightley teases a taste for scandal among Parisian high society in this handsome period biopic set in a bohemian swirl of celebrity, fashion and art.

It’s based on the life of famed French novelist, Gabrielle Colette, a poor country girl swept off to Paris by her rampant, exploitative and bullying older husband, played by an exuberant Dominic West in an alarming goatee beard.

They’re a great double act and especially good at essaying the fluctuating power within their relationship and the conflict caused by his publishing her racy novels under his name.

But Colette’s convention-challenging lifestyle is protected by her status, meaning much of her behaviour is consequence-free and so sadly lacks drama.

Kudos to Knightley for choosing a complex leading role which challenges the sympathies of the audience, but her talent is let down by a plodding pace and an unfocused script which resorts to spicing things up with a couple of steamy scenes with Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson.

 

 

 

THE HIGHWAYMEN

Cert 15 Stars 3

Bonnie and Clyde were the Great Depression era outlaw killers whose definitive screen portrayals were by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Arthur Penn’s 1967 masterpiece.

With little new to say about them, this handsomely mounted period crime drama is focused on the lawmen who tracked the duo down.

There’s no hardship in keeping company with class acts Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as the Texas Rangers brought out of retirement by Kathy Bates’ state governor. 

Their humour and wry chemistry give a dignified gloss to a standard tale of two good old boys rediscovering self-worth in later life.

THE FAVOURITE

Cert 15 119mins Stars 5

The bets are off on who will win a royal game of snobbery, seduction and survival in this scabrously funny and multi-award winning historical drama.

Framed as a barking mad fairytale and set in the cruel court of Britain’s Queen Anne in the early 1700s, it sees two women jockey for position as the monarch’s right hand.

Rachel Weisz plays the Duchess of Marlborough who begins in pole position as the power behind the throne, pushing the gout afflicted monarch about in a wheelchair.

Olivia Colman’s sickly royal passenger is an infantilised monster, damaged from child rearing, rapped in her palace and wielding immense power without any real understanding of the human consequences.

Meanwhile Emma Stone’s aristocratic Abigail is forced to work as a scullery maid, where she plots her return to high society and becomes a rival of her cousin, the Duchess.

Nicholas Hoult’s parliamentarian is pointedly referred to as the Leader of the Opposition, underlining how the women are navigating a male dominated society.

As you’d expect from a cast of this quality. the performances are as tremendous, fuelled by brutal dialogue which is alternately eye-wateringly coarse or sharply witty.

Filming on location at the suitably grand stately home of Hatfield House in Hertfordshire lends authenticity while the cast are decorated with the extravagant attire supplied by British Oscar-winning costume designer, Sandy Powell.

This is another grotesque theatre of the absurd from from Greek director, Yorgos Lanthimos, and though arguably his most mainstream film yet, it is by no means mundane. It crackles with urgency, humour, tension and desperation as it becomes ever more nightmarish.

Yet his ability to offer a degree of sympathy to his all characters even as he condemns them to self-awareness is a rare gift in filmmaking. 

This is another extraordinary experience from a unique storyteller and the first great film of 2019.

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS

Cert 15 124mins Stars 3

Irish actress Saoirse Ronan gives a royal performance in this solid historical drama which presents court politics from a female point of view.

The three times Oscar nominee is on usual brilliant form as Mary, a passionate, playful and proud 18 year old widow, newly arrived from France to rightfully claim the Scottish throne.

Surrounded by grasping and entitled men who use every available means to exploit, abuse, discredit and dispose of her, Mary’s only potential ally is the English Tudor Queen, Elizabeth I.

Aussie star Margot Robbie plays in a fake nose, face paint and bright red fright wig which makes her increasingly resemble a pimped-up and cross-dressing circus clown. And David Tennant has great fun as a preacher who brands Mary a strumpet.

Anchored by the excellent locations, set design and costumes, this is a handsome mix of sex, violence and intrigue, but it never achieves the epic stature it strives for and though always watchable it’s nothing to lose your head over.

 

PETERLOO

Cert 12A Stars 3

Director Mike Leigh takes a blunderbuss to a historical slaughter and kills the drama stone dead in this sincere and serious epic which is devoid of subtlety.

A period companion piece to his superior 2014 Oscar-nominated biopic of the 19th century artist, JMW Turner, this centres on the Peterloo massacre of Monday August 16, 1819, when 60,000 people gathered peacefully in Manchester to demand Parliamentary reform and voting rights.

And in one of the most infamous acts of violence committed by the country against its own people, families were charged down by British cavalry, leading to hundreds of injured and fifteen deaths.

It’s a long wait for the grandly staged and suitably shocking sequence, and too much of what precedes too often feels like a heavy-handed history lecture with too little thought given to entertainment.

There are multitude of people milling about and seemingly all of them get to proclaim their political position, and at bum-numbing length. 

The closest we have to a lead character is Joseph, a PTSD-suffering infantryman who we follow from the battlefield of Waterloo in 1815, to his home town where he witnesses more carnage.

Joseph is a great example of how Leigh values dramatic irony over melodrama, spectacle and appealing characters.

And with barely a dark satanic mills in sight we’re told why the masses are crying ‘liberty or death’, but we never see or feel it.

However Leigh is good at showing how historical events are extraordinary messy affairs, full of competing egos, factions and agendas.

It’s suggested we don’t have to look far to find contemporary parallels of violent state oppression or blustering self-important politicians, but Leigh caricatures the upper-classes so broadly it undermines any intention to condemn them. 

Peterloo is a moment of British historical significance which will benefit from being far more widely known, but also one which deserves a far more compelling account.

 

 

BLACK ’47

Cert 15 100mins Stars 4

The Western is bracingly invigorated with this bitter, brutal and brilliant Irish revenge thriller which swaps the Wild West desert for Ireland’s bleak midwinter of 1847.

When a soldier returns home from fighting for the British overseas, he finds the remains of his family in desperate circumstances due to the potato famine and the despotic land clearances of the English aristocracy.

It’s an impressively physical and taciturn performance by Aussie actor, James Frecheville, as the veteran, Martin Feeney, who begins to wage a one-man war across the land and has his sights set on Jim Broadbent’s callously indifferent lord of the manor.

Meanwhile Freddie Fox’s foppish sergeant is sent to hunt down Martin, and recruits Hugo Weaving’s disgraced policeman, who is also a former army colleague of the renegade.

During the course of his personal vendetta, Martin’s patriotic shift is clear from his use of his native Irish language, and those caught in his violent wake also experience a political radicalisation.

One such example is Barry Keoghan’s squaddie, whose conscience-driven actions suggests the working classes on either side of the Irish Sea have a great deal of common cause against the English landed gentry.

Adopting a suitably spartan style, director Lance Daly brings a harsh mournful beauty and mythic overtones to the magnificently photographed epic landscapes, while not forgetting to feature plenty of shoot-outs and horse rides.

A lean script doesn’t waste a word of dialogue is full of contemporary concerns such as bigotry, torture, the clash of religions and a refugee crisis. It also includes moments of gallows humour and there’s a novel use for a pig’s head, which even the English members of today’s broadminded political elite would shy away from.

Though lacking the romance, melodrama or grandstanding speeches of Mel Gibson’s Oscar winner, this is very much an Irish Braveheart, and is intense, timely and terrific.