In The Heart Of The Sea

Director: Ron Howard (2015)

It’s all hands on deck for an epic old fashioned adventure on the high seas.

Based on the events which inspired Herman Melville‘s classic novel Moby Dick, it’s a shipshape and manly yarn full of arrogance, greed and danger.

The story is anchored by the reliable talents of Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson as novelist Melville and drunken old sea-dog Thomas Nickerson.

One dark night in 1850, Melville pays Nickerson to tell the truth behind the voyage of the whaling ship The Essex, on which he served on as a cabin boy thirty years earlier.

Whaling is a dangerous and potentially lucrative industry, harvesting the seas for oil to serve America’s fast growing population.

Back then Nickerson was in the charge of Owen Chase, an experienced first mate, played with manly gusto by Chris Hemsworth.

The star of Marvel’s Thor always gives good smoulder and here he glowers with resentment.

Impoverished and eager to provide for his pregnant wife, Chase’s ambitions to captain his own ship are thwarted by the shipping company directors.

They make him serve under Benjamin Walker’s novice Captain Pollard, the privileged son of an important investor.

Lashed together in mutual antipathy and greed, they sail from Nantucket round Cape Horn to the Pacific ocean.

The scenes where the crew row out in tiny boats to manually harpoon their enormous prey are terrific.

But the increasingly desperate hunt for whales goes awry with the crew facing fires, storms, mutiny and of course a very angry white whale.

The heart of the sea becomes a very dark place indeed as despair and madness grip the sailors.

Following Rush (2013) the biopic of motor racing star James Hunt, this is the second film Ron Howard has made with Hemsworth.

Exciting, intelligent and respectful to it’s source In The Heart Of The Sea is the sort of film Hollywood is now accused of not making any more.

Well now they have so you really should go and see it.

 

 

 

Suffragette

Director: Sarah Gavron (2015)

Political passion and personal punishment power a prodigious performance in this stirring historical drama.

In the dark, violent world of 1912, a young mother risks everything as she battles the government for the right to vote.

Fictitious characters mix with real people and events to create a gripping story filled with emotional truth.

Following her excellent turn in Far From The Madding Crowd (2015), Carey Mulligan gives another mesmerising performance as factory worker and reluctant activist Maud Watts.

Her young son George is ominously diagnosed by Helena Bonham Carter’s chemist as ‘a bit chesty’.

Hardworking and aspirational, Maud is drawn into the bosom of the suffragettes and their world of nighttime rallies, back room meetings and property attacks.

Soon she feels the full force of the law in the form of the intelligence gathering Special Branch and truncheon wielding constables.

With Maud’s behaviour considered to be madness not badness, she’s ostracised, beaten, jailed and endures a hunger strike.

Radicalised by her experiences, she is soon waging a guerrilla war alongside veteran campaigner Emily Davison.

It mostly involves blowing up the UK’s communications infrastructure. i.e. postboxes.

Corrupt politicians collude with the media to keep the violent campaign off the front pages.

In desperation to  be heard, the women seize upon a target so big as to be impossible to ignore.

At times the heartbreaking events resemble the grimmer moments of Les Miserables (2012). With the thankful exception of the awful sing-alongs.

It’s an inspiring tale of kindness, courage and comradeship Which at times tries too hard. We’ve long since been won over by Maud by the time she’s reduced to waiting in the rain.

An intelligent script insists the women are fighting a war and the dialogue includes frequent exhortations for them never to give up.

It celebrates their bravery and solidarity against the state who use covert surveillance and brutality to suppress a popular political uprising.

However it aligns the direct methods and organisational prowess of the suffragettes with historical and contemporary terrorist groups such as the IRA.

This may prove problematical to viewers. It’s certainly the starting point for an interesting debate.

Cinematographer Edu GrauIt captures the drama in palettes of browns and greys, as films of this sort so often are.

Better known as James Bond’s Q, soft spoken Ben Whishaw is counter-intuitively cast as Maud’s working class barrow boy husband Sonny.

His subtle acting suggests a marriage of convenience and as the story progresses, Sonny’s feebleness adds perspective to Maud’s situation.

Geoff Bell stops shy of pantomime as an abusive factory boss and the film is not too sure what to do with Brendan Gleeson’s cop. His concerned reasonableness challenges you to remember he’s one of the guys.

Meryl Streep makes a brief and typically stagey appearance as head girl Emmeline Pankhurst. It veers towards an impersonation of Maggie Smith in TV’s Downton Abbey.

In The Iron Lady (2011) cinema’s grand dame won an Oscar for playing the famously unsisterly first female Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

During her divisive time in office she was not for turning when it came to civil unrest and terrorist campaigns.

Spoken of in hushed voices in her absence, Pankhurst addresses a crowd messianically from a balcony and a signed book is passed around as if a holy relic.

This is the nearest religion comes to being referenced in the film.

There are no priests in the church which offers sanctuary to the dispossessed and the position of the established church seems to be one of benign neutrality.

This despite organised religion having a poor track record in the public arena of women’s rights.

Made In Dagenham (2010) showed car factory workers campaigning for equal pay in the 1970’s. Suffragette is a spiritual prequel and in the 60 odd years between the periods portrayed, it’s sobering to realise how little progress had been made.

As a representative of all the foot soldiers of the suffrage movement, Mulligan’s emotional performance puts us at the heart of their struggles against the established order.

She easily wins my vote for 2016’s Best Actress Oscar.

Song of the Sea

Director: Tomm Moore (2015)

Be swept away on waves of wonder by this gorgeously animated fairytale.

Moving and magical, it creates a lyrical land of enchantment and transformation, rich in celtic charm, myth and adventure.

Grief and love are buoyed by a strong script and ferried through a whirlpool of beautiful visuals on the musical currents of Irish folk band band Kila.

Central to the story are the Selkies of Irish folklore; seals who are humans on land.

They’re joined by crabs, badgers, whales and sea gods in this wonderfully realised world. Stone circles are glimpsed and electrical pylons resemble wicker men.

Lighthouse keeper Conor (Brendan Gleeson) is distraught after the loss of his wife Bronagh (Lisa Hannigan).

He struggles to care for his children Ben and Saoirse (David Rawle, Lucy O’Connell).

They’re a pair of scared, bored and vulnerable people and have a wonderfully observed relationship. They’re far from standard Hollywood cutsey kids and they’re all the more appealing for it.

So the squabbling siblings are sent to the grim city to live, leaving behind Ben’s brave and loyal sheepdog Cu.

It’s a grey polluted place where street urchins in Halloween costumes build bonfires. Rural paganism gives way to urban christianity.

When the mute Saoirse creates music on a conch shell bequeathed from their late mother, it attracts the attention of fairies.

They need the help of Saoirse to save them from the owl-witch Macha (Fionnula Flanagan) who is turning fairies to stone to prevent their feelings from hurting them.

Macha’s owls are not the tame messengers of Harry Potter’s world but malevolent dive-bombing fiends.

There is a secret key, a treasure chest and a special coat. A map leads to secret tunnels and hidden glades in forbidding woods.

Song of the Sea is far less frantic than recent movies such as the enjoyably knockabout Minions (2015). Loving craftsmanship and fine detail fill every frame.

The gorgeous artwork is so vividly textured when Ben takes shelter from a thunderstorm I worried the whole film would be washed away like the chalk pavement paintings in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964).

Influenced by the themes and tones of Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli, the parallels with their Ponyo (2008) demonstrate the universality of the story.

There are also nods to children’s classics E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982), The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Along with The Tale of the Princess KaguyaHow to Train Your Dragon 2, The Boxtrolls and the winner Big Hero 6, Song of the Sea was Oscar nominated for the best animated feature at the expense of the highly fancied and outright awesome The Lego Movie.

Song of the Sea deserves it’s place in this rarefied company and if The Lego Movie were to have ousted any of them, then Song of the Sea isn’t the weakest on the shortlist.

Following The Secret of Kells it’s the second feature in a row to be Oscar nominated from Irish animation house Cartoon Saloon. Kells was co-directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey. This time Moore is directing by himself.

With relationships based on love and bound together with loss, bad things are done with the best intentions. The power of the heartbreaking finale is based on healing not conflict.

This is very much at odds with the accepted commercial norm of cinematic storytelling and Song of the Sea is all the more rewarding for it.

This is one song you’ll want to play on repeat.