AN EMPIRE OF WORDS


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The Levelling (2017)

I never knew that a film that entirely took place on a farm could be so gripping. The Levelling is Hope Dickson Leach’s first feature and it’s quite a remarkable piece. There is a certain realisation of talent she possesses with her first feature.

Aside from a few dog walks, the film take places entirely on the grounds of the farm where Clover (Ellie Kendrick) grew up whilst not at boarding school. But what Hope Dickson Leach managed to do was create a realistic feeling that you were there on the farm with her and her father, but using the natural sounds around the farm.

Clover comes back to the farm for her brother’s funeral, after it transpired that he shot himself during a party. Clover cannot get the story straight and there is a clear resentment towards her father, whom she refers to as Aubrey (David Troughton), rather than the usual pleasantries. Instead of having the film adhere to that one narrative, Hope Dickson Leach decided to interplay the story surrounding the out of favour farm and her brother’s death as well.

The night in question was supposed to be a celebration, as Clover’s brother Harry (Joe Blakemore) was taking over the farm, but it ended in tragedy. Clover tries to address the issue surrounding his death whilst Aubrey and James (Jack Holden) try to downplay and dance around the issue.

This is where the narrative is head and shoulders above majority of films today, as the tragedy of Harry is pointed to and displayed right out in front of our eyes, but rather in the reactions from James, Aubrey and Clover. Their conversations are disjointed, but the nuanced movements between the characters really accentuate the story that is behind this.

Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling is incredibly moving and doesn’t rely on any strong visual effects, but rather the powerful story and characters throughout the 83-minute runtime. It’s shorter than I anticipated, but this is irrelevant due to the fact that you become wrapped up in Clover’s story.

That’s not to say that Hope Dickson Leach manages to create some beautiful shots of the English countryside, especially as the birds dance against the greying overcast skies. This adds to the reality that Hope Dickson Leach is trying to convey with the setting being in the countryside.

And this reality is conveyed through Aubrey and Clover as well, with their British mentality. Although the farm is drastically failing, they continue to work throughout the day and milk the cows. Clover falls into this routine, whilst trying to tie up loose ends surrounding the events that brought her home.

But these are real characters that are unfolding on the screen and it becomes incredibly moving as they try to negotiate a way to talk to each other and not be at each others throats night and day. The small knit cast works, as their conversations, or lack of, are the key to this film as Clover finds herself in a place she doesn’t want to be anymore.

It’s a strange film to try and review, because of the calibre of The Levelling. It is best to let Hope Dickson Leach’s directorial debut do the talking, because it can certainly walk the walk. Ellie Kendrick is the centrepiece of this and she is just fantastic in this as she tries to come to terms with her brothers death and also reconcile with her estranged father. The Levelling is a film of true brilliance and really emotes empathy in a strong way. A gem truly worth seeking out.


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The Sense of an Ending (2017)

It’s not often I am enticed into films with romantic twists hidden beneath it’s depths. But there was something about the The Sense of an Ending that had enticed me, probably down to the intriguing Jim Broadbent character professing he thought he had “more time”.

The Sense of an Ending was adapted from the popular Julian Barnes novel for the big screen, with Jim Broadbent taking the central role of Tony Webster. It takes place over two different time periods. It opens with Tony (Billy Howle) in his younger days as he leaves sixth form and enters the university period of his life. The centralised Jim Broadbent fills his boots with the role of Tony Webster as he approaches the latter stages of his years.

Grumpy. That’s potentially the best way to describe Jim Broadbent’s Tony as you can immediately sense dissatisfaction in his life and the on goings around it, including his strained relationship with his pregnant single daughter. He lives day-to-day, until receiving a letter in the post saying he’s been left a diary by his old girlfriend’s mother.

After receiving the letter, Jim Broadbent indeed becomes the befuddled character that is brilliant for him. The character of Tony Webster on the other end becomes a despicable character as the story bores into it’s latter half of the 100+ minute runtime. He becomes entwined with his ex-girlfriend Veronica (Charlotte Rampling) in the present day, demanding he sees the diary.

But as this happens, it becomes a quite confusing mess and I found myself asking the question, why? Especially as the film tries to pile on a twist, that doesn’t play out as expected. I imagine that the twist was more effective in the book as it played out, but I feel as though it didn’t quite work on screen.

Much of the promotional material featured Jim Broadbent in this hurried frenzy exclaiming that he thought he had more time. I thought the Julian Barnes’ adaptation would feature time as a prolonged theme throughout, but it rather becomes about how one looks back on their lives and how they remember it.

I personally couldn’t get to grips with the characters, as I found the relationships to quite unbelievable to a certain degree. This is probably down to those playing, as they seem fairly rigid and casual about their continued relationships with one another. But Ritesh Batra managed to compact the film in just shy of 110 minutes, which was a good length, it just faltered at other points during the film.

Contrasting the youthful Tony versus the older Tony worked well as the story is built around this event that transpired between Tony and Veronica during their student days. But this event (which I shan’t divulge for fear of spoilers) is really underwhelming. And that tonally set the mark for me for The Sense of an Ending.

Aside from the acting that was on display, I found little to enjoy about this film. As I mentioned, I found the big reveal underwhelming, which left the rest of the film in a confusing state. But it wasn’t enjoyable to watch Jim Broadbent wander round London and his house trying to reminisce about his relationship with Veronica from forty years ago. Although the acting was great, the characters were not as you find young Tony to be a pretentious know-it-all with his friends and the strange relationships that he embarks upon.

There may have been a deeper philosophical meaning driven through Tony’s best friend Adrian, but I feel under everything else The Sense of an Ending was trying to achieve, that message was lost. I just did not get along with it, nor it characters and left the film really rather underwhelmed.


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Lady Macbeth (2017)

Lady Macbeth has always been an intriguing character as she whispers sweet nothings into Macbeth’s ear before he commits an unfathomable sin. This woman for the ages serves as a source of inspiration for Nikolai Leskov’s novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.

Alice Birch reworked Leskov’s novel and William Oldroyd took the lead in directing the 89-minute period drama for the big screen. Although no clear time period is distinguished in the film, it’s clear that it’s set during the Shakespearean-era as the noblemen are addressed as Sirs and there are slaves dotted around the grand manor Catherine (Florence Pugh) finds herself wandering in.

I found the title of Lady Macbeth to be quite ironic when Catherine seems to be anything but, as she doesn’t enjoy the tightening of a corset, or the brushing of her hair as she grunts with displeasure at the maid Anna. (Naomi Ackie) She often finds herself constantly trying to remain awake, and functions pretty much on autopilot.

The titular Lady Macbeth serves as inspiration for Catherine’s character, rather than producing a telling of Lady Macbeth. Catherine finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage and lives with an arrogant and snarling father-in-law. What I did not anticipate was the darker realms that Lady Macbeth delves into as Catherine vies for a happier life. I should have probably anticipated it with the title of Lady Macbeth.

As the loneliness consumes Catherine, she becomes arrogant in her own way as she barks at Anna for staring and even goes as far as assuming control of the manor as her husband and father-in-law attend to different matters.

As I mentioned, Alice Birch reworked the script from the original and (I can only assume this without reading the novel) placed the setting in Great Britain, as well as changing the names to the English sounding counterparts. I imagine this was to make Lady Macbeth more accessible for the moviegoers in the UK. What this allowed William Oldroyd to do is to take in the British countryside, and this really worked with the wind bellowing around Catherine, giving you the shivers as though you are almost stood there with the protagonist.

Birch managed to make the narrative work, as the screen becomes embroiled in a lust-heavy opening 40 minutes as Catherine engages in adulterous behaviour with one of the workers, Sebastian, (Cosmo Jarvis) but then as the film progresses it becomes tense as whether they can keep their relationship a secret, or do the walls have ears? But also Birch began telling an intriguing story as Sebastian and Catherine’s relationship is continually tested.

I believe the narrative structure is helped monumentally by the performance from Florence Pugh in her on screen-debut as from this solitary Catherine, to a menacing, vindictive woman is really helped by the nuanced facial features as she plots and contrives against her new family.

Her subtle movements from the opening to forty to the remaining forty create a worldly difference for the character of Catherine. She becomes enigmatic and grips the screen in every scene she is placed in.

William Oldroyd with Alice Birch’s script has created what is a rather enjoyable period drama. I’d be intrigued to read the novel that serves as the inspiration for Lady Macbeth, especially after really enjoying Justin Kurzel’s imagining of the Shakespearean tradic play. It would be worth seeking out Lady Macbeth solely for Florence Pugh’s incredible performance at the centre of this film. She dominates every scene she appears in and because quite a scary character through the 86 minute runtime.


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Viceroy’s House (2017)

The tone of Viceroy’s House is set as Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) takes on the role of the last Viceroy of India and announces to a council of his peers that the Indian’s cannot wait to get rid of the British.

Gurinder Chadha has Viceroy’s House take place entirely within the complex of the aforementioned house, which housed people of all faiths and differing political stances during this time of extreme change ij India. What I did not anticipate with this story is the extremely personal touch, as the director’s great grandmother was actually caught in the partition of India in 1947.

The grand spectacle of the house was beautifully shot, as Lord and Lady Mountbatten enter the house for the first time and the screen dances with golds, reds and oranges. But instead of having the story revolve around Lord Mountbatten’s adjustment to the Indian heat and the change of power, the house also welcomes a new member into its staff as Jeet Kumar (Manish Dayal) joins the ranks.

The house in itself becomes a character over the course of an hour and forty minutes, as you see the cracks begin to show between the differing faiths that serve the Viceroy’s family. This tension becomes part of the film, as the violence around India wages on whilst Mountbatten and his council try to negotiate a plan that will work for India and it’s people.

But this tension also filters and weighs heavily on the Mountbatten family, as Lady Mountbatten (Gillian Anderson) seemingly loses faith in her husband as he tries to maintain a plan that will effectively tear India apart. And her performance is excellent as the humanitarian that wants the British to not be remembered as the people that ruined the country whilst giving back independence.

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Instead of having Viceroy’s House stand alone as a political drama depicting this partition, Chadha instead incorporated a love story that bridges an impossible gap that seems to have been placed between faiths. Jeet Kumar and Aalia Noor (Huma Qureshi) have an infectious love story that takes place during the backdrop of this torn India, which causes further tension between themselves and their faiths.

I had come into this film with no prior knowledge about Viceroy’s or their houses and especially the partition of India. The way Gurinder Chadha managed to relay this historical information was fantastic, and I can’t say I was ever bored during the unveiling of it. The key to the climax of this story was the tension that was rife throughout the household, but also the tension between the Mountbattens and Mountbatten’s staff.

This come downs to the convincing performances from everyone on screen, from Manish Dayal, Michael Gambon and even Neeraj Kabi as Mahatma Gandhi professing his opinion on the situation. The telling of this political drama would have come down to the convincing performances on show and the cast were there the whole nine yards. Chadha managed to effectively add in the love story to bulk out the story, which helped it move through the hour and forty runtime.

Viceroy’s House is a really enjoyable piece of filmmaking, and quite an educational one too. It also provide the social implications of Indians living in India under the rule of the British. As Viceroy’s House takes place in 1947, it also tells how World War II impacted both nations in differing ways.

The real winner in this picture is the tension that is rife throughout. Chadha and the cast effectively made the tension feel real and not just between Mountbatten and his staff, but between the members of staff themselves. The upstairs downstairs dynamic that is reminiscent of Downton Abbey really accentuates this as the Mountbatten’s take residence at the house.

The last moments of Viceroy’s House is what stays with you. The personal story of Chadha’s great grandmother being victim to the partition drives home an event that happened a mere 70 years ago and can be drawn on for relevance to this present day. Although politics in dramas are a grey area in enjoyment, Viceroy’s House managed to have the right mix of political drama and the love story and I think that it comes down to the great all round performances from Bonneville, Anderson and the rest of the supporting cast. If you’re interested the British Empire and it’s impact on India, then this would be perfect viewing for you.


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Hidden Figures (2017)

Everyone is aware of the 1960s Space Race that culminated in the 1969 landing on the moon. What everyone may not be aware of is that during the sixties the space race was influenced and helped by a group of African American women working NASA.

The story of the Space Race in itself is just awe inspiring. Include this backdrop of women being victims to racial and gender imbalances in the work place, whilst remaining vigilant and resilient against those that defy them, makes the story even better. Theodore Melfi has managed to tell an incredible story that is wonderfully life affirming coinciding with NASA’s attempts to put an American in orbit.

As well as the racial tensions that are rife in state of Virginia during the sixties, there is also an unbearable tension within Langley’s Research Center as they listen to the reports of the Russians effectively managing to put a satellite into orbit. There is an increasing amount of pressure that is placed on Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and his team of engineers to touch the stars.

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Melfi manages to show the tension, regardless of what tension it is, effectively and the story becomes quite enticing as it develops. He has our three resilient heroes push the boundaries in their respective areas continually to achieve something that seems alien to myself in the present day.

Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) is very headstrong in her ambition to become the first woman engineer at Nasa, whilst Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) shoulders the authoritative figure within this film whilst locked in a battle of wits with Mrs Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst). Melfi has chosen to run the narrative primarily through Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) as helps decipher the math that is missing for their prospective launches into space, which causes tension amongst Paul Stafford and his team of engineers.

The tension does come down to that way that the segregation is shown throughout the film, whether that is the denial of a promotion or disbelieving that an African American woman can solve the mathematics that are in front of her. This comes to a boiling point as Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) exclaims the ridiculousness of having to make a forty minute trip just to use the bathroom in a scene that is breath taking displaying a strong sense of empathy for these characters.

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Everyone is aware of the racial segregation that happened between African American’s and Whites, but the fact Melfi manages to subtlety uses this almost as though we are transported to Virginia in the 1960s during this awe-inspiring age of new technology. His choice to have the characters experience these social in justifications first hand, but take them on the chin and continue to strive for greatness was incredible and managed to make the screening more enjoyable.

Although the narrative was strong and enjoyable with these three women that were played superbly, Hidden Figures feels a little bit longer than it ought to be. Don’t get me wrong, it is a triumphant piece of filmmaking, but some with smart editing could have made the film pack a lot more to punch, rather than drag.

Of the ensemble piece, Jim Parsons’ lead engineer Paul Stafford is the weakest as he professes that a ‘woman’ is unable to help with the advance math he is calculating and of course continually hinders her performance throughout the film. But this is one of the bigger positive points surrounding this film as regardless of her rejection to be accepted within the ranks of engineers, Katherine continually defies Paul and Al’s beliefs and delivers this resilient behaviour every step of the way and manages to enjoy her life regardless of the circumstances surrounding her.

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Melfi with the help of Henson, Spencer and Monae has managed to bring to life the story behind the sixties Space Race in thought provoking way. He doesn’t rely too heavily on the racial tensions, but rather uses them in a narrative means to help progress the story and effectively instil a means of empathy within.

As I mentioned, my main grief is that the film begins to drag as it reaches it’s second hour of viewing as Melfi draws on Katherine’s personal life and her relationship with Jim Johnson, (Mahershala Ali) which for me seems a bit redundant. Not only this I thought some of the song choices seemed a bit displaced and out of sync with the rest of the story.

But Hidden Figures remains an extraordinary story about extraordinary circumstances that just seems so alien to me now, and Melfi’s ability to show this in an effective and justifiable way was a pleasure to watch, alongside the narrative the characters are incredibly life affirming and Hidden Figures just manages to keep you smiling.


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Moonlight (2017)

For audiences to react with Moonlight in the way that they have is extraordinary. The film is fresh on everyone’s lips, especially after the seemingly controversial (hmm.) win over La La Land at the Academy Awards. But that is all washed away when you first encounter Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight because everything is just so genuine.

Moonlight is reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s 19-year film Boyhood thematically as we watch a young boy grow up before our very eyes, but this time three different actors take on the role of Chiron. They traverse through three different stages as Chiron grows up in the Liberty City projects of Miami, Florida.

A project such as this may cause hiccups for the characters in terms of narrative and arcs, but Jenkins displays a masterful touch when it comes to this as he directs every single member in the large ensemble piece with a direct precision that is enigmatic and visible on the screen. Across the board the performances are genuine and enchanting as Chiron is supported by jaw-dropping performances from Mahersala Ali, Jeanelle Monae and Naomie Harris.

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Moonlight very heavily bares its beating heart to the audience through to use of Chiron and the three actors that portray him at different stages from the young Alex Hibbert being chased by bullies to the hard exterior of Travente Rhodes in the third act. But whilst Moonlight invests in this character, there is a certain cinematic quality to this film, something that is not often visible in films that focuses heavily on it’s characters.

The warmth that emanates from the screen in the swirling opening shot of Juan (Mahersala Ali) is magnificent, almost placing you in the projects of Liberty City with Juan. Jenkins does not have it stop there though, as you can almost feel the brief gust of wind that the teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) talk about on the beach as the waves lap in the background.

This is all intertwined with a beautifully placed score, but also the apt popular culture songs relevant to that of the time period. And it works, especially as Chiron in the third act mimics Juan, with the flashy car and in terms of profession, even so far as to mimic the nickname that represents a colour.

But this sense of identity that Chiron is trying to find throughout the three acts is crucial to the story working as one becomes invested in the characters throughout their own parts of the story. The struggle that is visible on screen as he tries to find his own voice and identity whilst growing up in a difficult area. This is all whilst trying to maintain a relationshipwith his drug-addicted mother. (played to perfection by Naomie Harris)

There are areas in Moonlight where the story was heartwrenching, as Little (Young Chiron played by Alex Hibbert) asks about being a ‘faggot’ as he wrestles with this internal battle. But the scene is weighted perfectly as Juan shows a shame in his profession, but the justified voice of not letting anyone tell you who you are or can be. Juan’s presence is significant throughout the three acts of Chiron’s story and as I mentioned, he even goes as far as mimicking the only father figure he had. But aside from having pretty much everything on the nose, the heart-breaking story was not there, like many professed it had.

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That would have to be my only grief with Moonlight, I feel as though there may have been too much hype going into the film, which majority of it was justified. Just not the heart-breaking element. Everything else was incredible, including the very personal touches that Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney worked into the story and the incredibly strong and versatile characters that are seen throughout Moonlight. And of course, the cinematic experience that Jenkins managed to shoot the film in was just beautiful, especially as we are experiencing a journey through this person’s life. Moonlight was an absolutely joy to watch, but my advice would be to stay away from the hype – if you can!


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T2: Trainspotting (2017)

Danny Boyle has never made a sequel to one of his films, until T2: Trainspotting, adding a sequel twenty years after his cult hit of Trainspotting. Again, T2: Trainspotting treads the same ground that formed the basis of Trainspotting in adapting Irvine Welsh’s novels, but this time working Welsh’s novel Porno into the mix.

Trainspotting was a smash hit and achieved cult status, from the famous toilet scene and it’s pop culture references throughout it has become sacred ground and I was filled with a sense of trepidation as the sequel approached. I’ve always held Danny Boyle in high regard, but this feeling could not be shaken due to the enjoyment from his original 1996 film.

“So Mark, what you been up to.. for twenty years?”

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As Mark makes his way around Edinburgh to see his old friends and trying to avoid the notorious Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle) he begins to realise their social situations haven’t changed, as Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) is still scheming to make money and Spud (Ewen Bremner) is still addicted to heroin, seemingly without a purpose.

Spud’s character goes on one of the better journeys in T2 as we see him still in the realms of being traumatically haunted by his addiction, but with the help of Mark he finds a new things to be addicted to, the way Mark turned his life around. As he becomes intertwined with Mark and Simon and sometimes Begbie, he begins to channel this new lease in life instead of being a background comic character. As Mark and Simon’s character stories took more of the central stage, Spud’s is the one to be watching.

T2 becomes interesting viewing, as it is a continuation of the characters that were made famous in the 1996 original, but instead of having it as a standalone sequel Boyle decided to have certain parts mirror Trainspotting. As Spud leaves the boxing gym, he sees the younger version of himself run past in a dazed surreal scene. Boyle chose to tease the original soundtrack too with a few, lingering notes, which bought forth the wanting of the song to kick in. Instead, Boyle chose to leave it, having that feeling remain.

A big draw to the original Trainspotting was the ability to successfully show the social world from the view of people living in it. Boyle effectively brought this into the 21st Century with Mark Renton again using the ‘Choose Life’ speech, but this time having a echoing relevance to the world in 2017. The continuation of the characters also filled us in with what’s happened in the previous 20 years for them, as the four receive an introduction before Mark enters their lives again, with their previous lifestyle affecting them one way or another.

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Whilst Boyle managed to perfectly incorporate the social backdrop of Edinburgh now vs the Edinburgh twenty years ago, I did feel let down by the story. This becomes the one element that left a bitter taste in my mouth upon leaving the cinema. I shan’t divulge too much due to spoilers, but I felt underwhelmed on a whole due to the story letting me down.

Although T2 is a sequel to Trainspotting, it seems as though Danny Boyle chose to try and keep them as separate entities, almost a ‘Past v Present’ scenario throughout T2. There are certain subtleties that indicate this use, including the group using their actual names (except for Spud, who remains haunted by his addiction that began twenty years ago) and their nostalgia trips they take Veronica (Anjela Nedyalkova) on in Simon’s flat.

T2 has managed to stay with me upon writing this 48 hours later. As I recount the characters, the comical gestures and the mirroring of Trainspotting, this all vastly outweighs an underwhelming story. It seems as though rather than focusing on the story, Danny Boyle focused on the characters and their situations twenty years down the line.

Boyle accompanied scenes with some beautiful visuals, of Mark and Simon celebrating a foosball goal and their hit of skag in Spud’s apartment. But also of Edinburgh, which wasn’t that focused on in Trainspotting. Although he is treading similar ground again, he is still working the camera fantastically throughout the film.

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After discussions and lengthy thoughts about T2 it became a better film for me to enjoy, but I could not shake that feeling of it being underwhelming when I left the cinema. It’s ability to remain with me 48 hours later and still be ‘fresh’, is a testament to what Danny Boyle actually achieved with T2.

The enjoyment on the screen of the characters and their actions throughout the two hour-ish runtime was excellent and felt brilliantly familiar, almost as though we hadn’t been waiting twenty years for the sequel. I feel the story would have benefitted more with Spud and his arc being front and centre, but him niggling away in the background still worked excellently.

Regardless, Danny Boyle has still taken everyone on a visual adventure with T2 from the club scene, to the heroin sequence in Spud’s flat, it all worked perfectly and carried on hitting the right tones. Boyle’s ability to mirror the films, but have them remain as separate entities was a masterstroke and served it’s purpose. The thing that has stayed with me is the Choose Life speech but with the 21st Century spin, because it hit all the right notes. T2 if anything has made me feel nostalgic for the first one, but I have every faith that repeated viewings of T2 will only strengthen its message.