Nocturnal Animals

Director: Tom Ford (2016) BBFC cert: 15

Tom Ford’s career diversion from fashion designer to film director goes from strength to sumptuous strength in this superbly confident psychological thriller.

Ford has tailored a smart and stylish affair of seamless precision, one you must luxuriate in it to appreciate the finesse of the cut and the fit. It provides aesthetic, intellectual and emotional thrills you will struggle to shrug off.

Five times Oscar nominee Amy Adams gives another flawless performance as immaculate gallery owner, Susan. While her husband is away, Susan receives a soon-to-be-published manuscript titled Nocturnal Animals, from her ex, Edward. As Susan reads the book, she is reminded of long hidden terrible behaviour.

Edward is played by Jake Gyllenhaal and though I’m occasionally underwhelmed by his presence in a movie, there’s no questioning the strength of this performance. Gyllenhaal also plays the role of the lead character in his novel, Tony. We see his dark, sad and violent story as a film within the film.

Tony’s family are brutalised while on a road trip through West Texas. He teams up with a local sheriff to hunt down the good old boys responsible. As Detective Bobby Andes, Michael Shannon is hard smoking, slow talking and always amusing.

Colin Firth was Oscar nominated for his turn in Ford’s debut A Single Man (2009) and many of the performances could follow suit. Laura Linney is sublimely sharp as Anne Sutton, Susan’s mother, nearly stealing the film in her only scene. Brits Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough and Aaron Taylor-Johnson provide strength in depth.

The score by Abel Korzeniowski is swooningly bleak and there is an extraordinarily bold and considered use of colour. The cool blues and glossy enclosed spaces of the Los Angeles art world are contrasted with the scorching rocky ochre of the vast expanse of Texas. Oscar nominations should surely arrive for production design and cinematography, respectively Shane Valentino and Seamus McGarvey.

An opening images of naked dancers begin a dialogue within the film of the nature of the artistic process. This conversation is based on the themes of exposure, vulnerability, pain and truth. They are central to the plot and are reinforced by the frequent mirroring of images and actors play dual roles. There is a pointed comment regarding critics who possess the power to destroy creativity, at no risk to themselves.

Careless viewers may scratch their heads at the final scene, but this is because Ford respects his audience and demands you pay attention to his beautifully bespoke tale of revenge.

@ChrisHunneysett

Far From The Madding Crowd

Director: Thomas Vinterberg (2015)

Passion, obsession and betrayal burst from every frame of this compelling, fresh and faithful adaption of Thomas Hardy‘s classic Victorian novel.

His rustic romance of a headstrong heiress and her three wildly different suitors is powered by a first-rate cast on their best form. Carey Mulligan is captivating as Bathsheba Everdene, famously played by Julie Christie in the 1967 version.

The orchestral score swells over the green and pleasant land of a production rich in period detail. The handsome locations are shot on film  – not digitally – in the county of Dorset (Wessex) where the book was set. This beds the story deep in historical and local context.

In an economical piece of character sketching, we first meet the beautiful, intelligent and impulsive Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan) riding freely on horseback. She is seen by the good shephard Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) who is diligently watching his flock. She is sporting a sleek, red riding-jacket, he is dressed in practical working clothes.

Valuing her independence above all else, Bathsheba is saved from an uncertain future when she inherits her uncle’s farm and determines to restore it to it’s once prosperous profitability.

Bathsheba is a political beast who doles out praise and punishments to her workers in public, she not only helps on the farm but is careful to be seen to be helping out on the farm.

She’s aided and abetted by her servant Liddy (Jessica Barden) who’s a useful source of village gossip and accompanies Bathsheba in making merry mischief.

As circumstances turn darker so Liddy slips from the frame. This is a shame as they share a sweet and believable friendship and it offers Bathsheba an extra dimension, preventing her from being defined by her relationship with men.

Bathsheba recognises men are attracted to her but sees it as a trap with no value – until she struggles in the man’s world of business. At the local market she’s reduced using her charm to encourage the local merchants to at least try her merchandise.

Farming life is a wild meadow of activity. As well as harvests, sheep dips and recruitment fairs, there’s bare-knuckle boxing, swordplay, gambling, storms, fires, madness and the tragic death of an infant.

The plot revolves around the ill-considered sending of a valentines card. When she is kissed for the first time Bathsheba is shocked by the strength of her own reaction. It derails her social sure-footedness and leads to choices which shreds her independence and happiness.

Bathsheba receives three propose; from the honest shepherd Gabriel, swaggering soldier Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge) and the emotionally fragile landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen). She sings a duet with one, rides tandem with another and marries a third.

Though the script sensibly streamlines the novel, it remains emotionally articulate and frequently funny. The focus is so tight on Bathsheba, outside of her suitors and Liddy, there’s barely another character who has a speaking role of note.

This is the weakness of the film as we’d like to spend longer here, perhaps wander around the countryside and meet a few more of the interesting looking characters who populate the village.

As the tone grows darker and the story more violent, the assured pacing of Danish director Vinterberg delivers dramatic action which is always underpinned by strong character motivation.

At quieter moments he is able to capture the nuance of social status, such as when characters wordlessly shift seats around a dinner table to accommodate an unexpected, superior guest.

Vinterberg is assisted by the vivid cinematography of Charlotte Bruus Christensen and the briskly seductive editing of Claire Simpson.

Although unquestionably a fine and suitably physical actor with the requisite intelligence and stillness of purpose, it’s curious to cast the Belgian Matthias Schoenaerts in a role who embodies what Hardy saw as the great virtues of the English.

Michael Sheen demonstrates his tremendous ability to suggest torrents of inner turmoil with a bare twitch of the mouth. As Boldwood struggles for the correct words, his quiet pleading is magnificently crafted from tight smiles and difficult pauses.

It has echoes of Prince Charles questioning the meaning of love when announcing his engagement to the considerable younger Diana Spencer.

The remarkable Carey Mulligan gives a rich and nuanced performance of acute emotional resonance. Her doe eyes convey Bathsheba’s vulnerability, strength and desire as well as her growing self-awareness and changing values.

Mulligan may not win next year’s best actress Oscar or even make the final cut, but she’s the early high-score on the leader board.

It’s easy to fathom why the men fall for Bathsheba, it’s more of a wonder why more men don’t.

Kill The Messenger

Director: Michael Cuesta (2015)

Despite a plot of international significance featuring political corruption, money laundering and drug dealing, this real-life thriller is surprisingly weak and muddled.

It’s a busy dramatisation of the fall from grace of investigative reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner). Uncertain of tone it begins as a courtroom romp, rifles into an astonishing hard news story then dissolves into a dull human interest feature.

Renner hides behind a goatee bristling with self-righteous rage but his taciturn everyman act lacks charisma. His two Oscar nominations (The Town, The Hurt Locker) seem ever more indebted to strong direction than any tremendous ability.

A scruffy family man with a penchant for British cars, motorbikes and music, Webb works on the small San Jose Mercury newspaper.

In a 1996 newsroom teeming with now unimaginable numbers of staff, Webb is indulged by young editor Anna (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and avuncular executive editor Jerry (Oliver Platt).

One day the glamorous Nicaraguan Coral (Paz Vega) drops a folder of confidential information into his lap. The first of many characters to pop up before being forgotten, she uses an unwitting Webb to have her boyfriend’s court prosecution collapse.

Following the info in the folder, Webb is soon interviewing incarcerated drug-dealer Rick Ross (Michael K. Williams). He claims the CIA turned a blind eye to Danilo Blandon (Yul Vazquez) importing industrial quantities of cocaine as it served their foreign policy purposes. The enormous sums of cash raised funded the Contra’s attacks on the communist Nicaraguan government.

It’s a doddle for Webb to bribe his way into a Nicaraguan jail to meet fearsome drug baron Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia). Everybody is happy to tell the journalist exactly what he needs – which means there’s no tension or drama to his story-gathering.

Publishing his story online (a novelty at the time) attracts nationwide attention. Webb is nominated for journalist of the year but quickly competitors line up to challenge the story, mostly by pointing to his conspicuous lack of evidence.

Now painted as a conspiracy theorist, Webb himself becomes the story. He’s convinced the CIA are in cahoots with the Washington Post to discredit him and the pressure affects his relationship with wife Sue (Rosemarie DeWitt) and teenage son Ian (Lucas Hedges).

Blinded by his indignant anger to the realities of the world and consumed by a martyr complex, Webb is demoted to a backwater department but keeps obsessively working the case.

Government insiders Fred Weil and John Cullen (Michael Sheen and Ray Liotta) appear in cameos to confirm Webb’s theories. They could well be figments of his imagination.

As his paranoia increases Webb sees prowlers in the dark and enemies everywhere. When his bike is nicked he stupidly smashes up his own car and harangues passes-by. As Webb’s mental state deteriorates his attire becomes progressively sharper.

Webb suffers a tragic end but the film fails to provide sufficient evidence to support it’s theory as to why.

★☆☆