VITA AND VIRGINIA

Cert 12A 112mins Stars 3

A former Bond girl gives an compelling turn as a predatory jazz age socialite in this real life lesbian love story.

Since her breakthrough role in 2008’s Quantum of Solace, Gemma Arteton has developed into an an authoritative and compelling big screen performer.

As Vita Sackville-West, she’s a married ‘promiscuous exhibitionist’ aristocrat who pursues a scandalous affair with famed writer, Virginia Woolf.

She’s the psychologically fragile heart of London’s racy bohemian Bloomsbury set, and Elizabeth Debicki’s ethereal presence combined with Arteton’s earthy urgency engenders their coupling with an erotic charge.

But there’s nothing gratuitous on show, instead Chanya Button’s steady-handed direction gives us an articulate and complex character study, which explores the many different forms of love and desire.

There are elements of magical realism, a strong supporting cast, excellent locations and gorgeous costumes. Plus there’s a startlingly modern electronic score by Isobel Waller-Bridge, who also provided the music for her sister Phoebe’s, Fleabag TV series.

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.

THE BOOKSHOP

Cert PG 113mins Stars 3

I’m never happier than browsing in a bookshop, and this period drama provides plenty of dark corners to lose oneself in.

It’s illuminated by the intelligent and elegant performance of Emily Mortimer, who plays childless war widow, Florence, who’s determined to open a bookshop in a disused house in the snobbery and gossip-ridden fictional fishing village of Hardborough. 

However Patricia Clarkson’s powerfully connected matriarch has longstanding plans for the building and begins an insidious campaign to close the shop.

Bill Nighy brings solemn charm as an eccentric reclusive landowner, and Julie Christie’s opening voice-over helps set a mournful tone and an indicator of the tragic events to follow.

Northern Ireland is a majestic stand-in for 1950’s Suffolk, while the wintery photography, decaying grand houses, and tales of death in the marshes, add to the gothic atmosphere.

Adapted from Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel this is a defence of free thinkers against stifling nonconformists and a passionate love letter to the written word.

THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY

Cert 12A 124mins Stars 4

Tuck in to this crowd pleasing tasty feast of a post-war detective story. Served with a heart-warming helping of romance, it’s far more satisfying than it sounds.

Star of Disney’s live action Cinderella and formerly of Downton Abbey, Lily James takes centre stage as a successful author called Juliet.

She’s sent to Guernsey in 1946 to write about the eponymous book and cookery club, established by the locals as a self support group during the wartime Nazi occupation.

To underscore the film belongs to James, she’s given a full Hollywood entrance in a stunning yellow ballgown. Always an engaging presence, she sweeps us away with her considerable talent and charm.

Though initially welcomed by the club, its members are reluctant to discuss the whereabouts of the founder member who is mysteriously ‘off island’. So Juliet sets off to uncover the truth of her disappearance.

Very much a love letter to literature of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, so true to form our romantically named heroine is caught between the attentions of Glen Powell’s dashing American diplomat, and Michiel Huisman’s hunky book-loving farmer, called Darcy, sorry, Dawsey. 

With complex family loyalties and grief and anger for those lost in the war, the script takes a sideways glance at the UK’s torturous relationship with the European mainland.

This is an exception to the cinematic rule of thumb which says the length of a films’ title is in inverse proportion to its quality. It’s stuffed with rich characters and production design, and set on the picture postcard-pretty island.

Plus there’s great warmth and humour from supporting cast, particularly veteran stars Penelope Wilton and Tom Courtney.

Director Mike Newell is one of the great unsung heroes of British cinema, due to his unassuming signature style which always serves the audience by putting the story first.

The result is a rewarding and entertaining slice of British fare you can really get your teeth into. 

 

VICTORIA AND ABDUL

Cert PG 112mins Stars 3

Having been Oscar nominated for playing Queen Victoria in 1997’s Mrs Brown, Judi Dench reprises the role in this handsome historical comedy-drama.

It explores the ageing Empress of India’s relationship with Ali Fazal’s young Indian footman, who rises to become her spiritual advisor.

Produced by the makers of Four Weddings and Notting Hill, there’s an abundance of well-heeled folk running about grand houses in a series of comic episodes.

We watch from Abdul’s viewpoint and underneath the pageantry there’s plenty of sniping commentary smuggled into the script.

Her majesty is self pitying and morbidly obese, who feasts while Ireland and India starve. She hates her vindictive and racist children more than anyone else does.

Plus her courtiers and ministers are cowardly self serving aristocratic idiots who toady for influence.

However the script is also careful to humanise the Queen and afford her sympathy and respect, so whether you’re for or against the British Empire, there’s a lot here to enjoy.

 

MY COUSIN RACHEL

Cert 12A 105mins Stars 4

Cornish cousins are caught kissing in this period potboiler of poison, property, and passion.

This gothic murder mystery melodrama is a hugely enjoyable adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1951 novel.

Poor sound quality marred the BBC’s version of her book Jamaica Inn, but this is excellent in every department.

Actor Sam Claflin has matured into an engaging leading man, and is on top form as Philip.

Having inherited a large estate, the young  man becomes besotted with his recently widowed cousin, Rachel.

Rachel Weisz is plays a brilliant guessing game with the audience as a beautiful older woman of questionable morals, uncertain motives and no income.

We’re teased as to whether she’s a permissive sophisticate on the make, or a proud woman frustrated at her financial dependence on men who are inferior in brains, charm and experience.

A strong supporting cast is headed by Holliday Grainger who quietly steals her scenes as Louise.

Plus the earthy design complements the breathtaking coastline in what is easily the best film of the week.

THE SECRET SCRIPTURE

Cert 12A 108mins Stars 2

Irish writer-director Jim Sheridan has previously delivered great work, such as the socially aware dramas, My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father.

Sadly this overwrought production is a muddled affair, with elements of gothic horror, mystery drama, and wartime romance, all jostling to dominate.

Eric Bana’s dashing doctor has been summoned to assess Rose McNulty. Accused of killing her baby, the fragile widow has since been held in a mental asylum for forty years. As the narrative flits between then and now, a personalised bible holds clues to the truth.

There’s no shortage of impassioned performances, with Vanessa Redgrave and Rooney Mara play the old and young versions of Rose.

But Sheridan’s cynicism at small town hypocrisy, punitive Irish republicanism and the brutal church, all sit uneasily with a deep lying sentimentality.

An oppressive score leaves no room for subtlety, and the script contains no secret worthy of the name.