Film Review – Drama

A Ghost Story (2017)

This is not a horror film.  

Before you think it is, A Ghost Story is not a horror film, it is anything but. Although Ghost appears in the title, it’s rather a comic ghost that situates itself throughout the best part of this film.

One of the first things I noticed about A Ghost Story was the ratio setting of the screen, as David Lowery encloses the screen in a box awash with a vintage-esque filter. This was actually really effective and almost became a window in the relationship of C (Casey Affleck) and M. (Rooney Mara)

Through this lens, we see C and M living in their quaint suburban house, but what unfolds is a strange devoid between the two of them for some unspoken reason. Suddenly the idyllic relationship between C and M is thrown into the abyss as C is killed in a car crash. But this is when the Ghost comes into the story.

At the morgue, M identifies the body and leaves. But Lowery holds the scene for an extraordinary amount of time with the body and it rises becoming the titular ghost. He returns the house C and M lived in and watches M as she tries to deal with the passing of her husband. Lowery has a tendency to hold his shots for a significant amount of time and he continues this trend, holding the shot where M eats the pie. The stillness of this shot is incredibly, especially as the Ghost watches on mere metres away.

Instead of becoming a terrifying story about the ghost, it rather begins to transcend time as the ghost watches M leave the house and the new residents that move in after him. These moments pass by like seconds, as the Ghost watches them through piano lessons, Christmas and mealtimes.

Throughout the 90ish minutes of film, the film is mostly devoid of speech, but it rather about the movements of C as the Ghost. Lowery does lace the screen with beautiful and picturesque shots, including the shot where the house is torn down and the Ghost is stood there amongst the rubble, almost contemplating the destruction around him.

As well as being almost devoid of speech, A Ghost Story contains the perfect blend for the score, between the natural sounds of suburban life to the soundtrack and score becoming increasingly enchanting as the Ghost passes through the future in a matter of seconds.

During one of the new tenants, Lowery chose to have a lengthy nihilistic speech interjected into the film, which worked perfectly. Considering the Ghost glides through these peoples lives, almost as though nothing matters when all is said and done.

A Ghost Story isn’t packed to the gills with narrative, but it’s not about the narrative completely, but rather the interesting premise of this time-travelling ghost and essentially the message that time does continue when we are gone, regardless of what we can try to do to stop it. The performances displayed by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck are brilliant, because it’s not about the speech and over-egged performance, but the nuanced movements that are displayed by the duo that makes the distance in the relationship believable.

A Ghost Story on a large scale worked, but I doubt it will be challenging for a spot of top film come the end of the year. But through the subtle performances and lengthy shots, David Lowery has really created a window into this relationship and the perception of time. Although A Ghost Story slipped into the realms of Interstellar towards the end, it managed to keep it’s footing. With the picturesque scenes throughout and enchanting music, A Ghost Story will definitely be a more memorable picture than most I’ve seen recently.

Dunkirk (2017)

War is hell. Absolute hell.

And that is exactly what Christopher Nolan has chosen to portray in his latest venture, Dunkirk. However, unlike Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge with their glorious actions sequences, Dunkirk rather takes on a subdued approach to the war.

Christopher Nolan is an absolute visionary of a director, with his back catalogue including Interstellar, The Prestige and the Batman trilogy. It’s an absolute change of pace from showing the quest to leave the planet, to the evacuation of Dunkirk, a key point during the Second World War for the British forces.

What’s always been interesting in Nolan’s filmmaking is that he shows a diverse range of how to tell a story from Momento to The Prestige. He chooses to have Dunkirk shown in a linear method with three intersecting stories from the air, the sea and the ground. And that is where we find Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) running the streets of Dunkirk eluding German fire as ‘We Surround You’ flyers cascade around him in one tense sequence.

And the tension doesn’t stop there. For the entirety of the film, the tension never takes it foot off the pedal. The constant changing of the tempo between the land, the sea and the air was crucial to keep the tension at boiling point throughout Dunkirk.

Christopher Nolan also manages to convincingly display glimpses into the hellishness of war, channelled mostly through Cillian Murphy’s shell-shocked soldier and his apprehension to continue heading into battle. But also the recognition from the civilian perspective, as Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his father, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), share a nuanced nod to not disclose information to the shell-shocked soldier aboard.

The narrative choice is possibly one of the most interesting choices, but it is key for the tension to be kept at a high level. But what is more interesting there is a certain absence of a traditional protagonist held within the film, but rather having The Mole, The Sea and The Air being characters within their own right and having characters placed throughout.

Normally Christopher Nolan allows the screen to be drenched in the characters, giving them time to be invested in, but the narrative method doesn’t allow this as time became a key factor in each of the segments. But there comes in the brilliance of the cast behind Nolan’s Dunkirk. Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh managing to exhibit the perfect amount of emotion that is needed regardless of how bleak the situation is and regardless of the screen time, especially when Home arrives.

Long-standing music collaborator Hans Zimmer chose to intertwine his score with occasional ticking, giving that reminder time is incredibly precious in these situations. This motif is carried throughout the three segments, as Farrier (Tom Hardy) keeps a close eye on the time to gauge his fuel.

Dunkirk is an incredible piece of filmmaking and Christopher Nolan showed a wonderful skill of narrative structure as the film progressed through it’s 100+ minute runtime and the motif use of time. The cast gave unbelievable performances, especially for the screen time each member received. It is potentially the tensest I’ve been in a cinema when watching a film and it was incredible.

Without the need to show the explicit war sequences, Christopher Nolan managed to give Dunkirk an incredible feel for the war by the incredibly loud action sequences from the get-go. By having the air sequences shot incredibly close to the nose was great and incredibly effective for what was needed on the screen. Overall, there’s little to dislike with Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan continues his incredible visionary filmmaking and remains one of the best directors in the business today.

The Beguiled (2017)

I’m unsure what it is at the moment, but period dramas are becoming my highly anticipated films of the year. The first instance was My Cousin Rachel, and the second is Sofia Coppola’s latest venture with The Beguiled.

Set in the 1800s during the American Civil War, the film had the promise of being a rather tense affair. It’s clear that Sofia Coppola’s has adoration for costume pieces, especially after Marie Antoinette but also the use of clothing and accessories in less-than-forgettable The Bling Ring.

It has to be said though, the opening forty or so minutes of The Beguiled do slog their way through the narrative as it tries building toward the tense and gripping affair it looked to be. As the Civil War is underway, the placement of the school in Virginia is excellent, as you hear to not-so far off gunshots and explosions as the war rages into it’s third year.

But with that comes a certain sense of innocence, as Amy (Oona Laurence) hums a playful tune whilst looking for mushrooms to pick. Amy stumbles across the injured John McBurney, (Colin Farrell) an injured Corporal of the Union army, who happens to have deserted the war effort. With good intentions, she brings him back to Miss Martha’s school, which causes an immediate disruption to the school.

Although the film does stand at around an hour and a half, it is a slow burner to begin with, which makes it feel longer. But Coppola dresses the screen with this aforementioned adoration of the dresses and the setting of the house, interior and exterior. The cast all eventually come into their own as they fight for the affections of Corporal McBurney, which does reach breaking point. The tension between Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and Alicia (Elle Fanning) is brilliant, especially as Elle Fanning channels her performance from The Neon Demon.

Each of the girls within the school is given apt time on screen, with the large chunk revolving around Miss Martha, (Nicola Kidman) Edwina and Alicia. Farrell is given enough time to spin his web within the house and what began as resentment for the ‘Yank’ soon became affection as each of the girls begin tussling for his attention and affection.

Her choice to leave the screen almost devoid of music for the first forty to fifty minutes really helped accentuate the wartime effort that engulfed Virginia. The natural noises mixed perfectly with the placement of Miss Martha’s home and often at times gave it a claustrophobic feeling as the film progress towards it’s climax. But when the tension of the music kicked in, it elevated the screen tenfold.

My only issue with the film is that opening forty minutes. Once it is past this hump and John McBurney incites the line ‘vengeful bitches’ The Beguiled really comes into it’s own. Especially with the performances from Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning as they try to play off each other. Sofia Coppola continues the trend of having intriguing female characters and created enough of a story to keep it’s head above water going into the final half of the film. And that last shot is just gorgeous.

My Cousin Rachel (2017)

It’s always a worry when I highly anticipate a film because with that enters a certain sense of trepidation. My Cousin Rachel had me anticipating it and I couldn’t wait for it’s release. Adapted from Daphne du Maurier novel (which I haven’t read) by Roger Michell, it had promise of a fantastic mysterious period drama.

And this mystery is the strong undertone felt through My Cousin Rachel as it opens with Philip (Sam Claflin) openly questioning “Did she? Didn’t she?” and quickly recounts a young Philips life. He takes residence at his cousin Ambrose’s estate after being left an orphan at a young age. In this opening segment there is a lack of a female presence, so much that Philip retorts ‘women weren’t allowed in the house, only the dogs’.

And Roger Michell really begins to divulge the screen by having the sprawling English countryside to the dark and dingy estate, really emphasising the boisterous attitude of Ambrose and Philip. This opening segment also gives the opportunity to pry into the character of Philip as he’d rather spend time on the grand estate of Ambrose’s than learn at school.

But also the hatred that slowly consumes Philip as he learns of Ambrose’s relationship to Rachel via the means of letter as Ambrose spends the winters in Italy in an attempt to get better. This opening 20 or so minutes slowly becomes brilliant as Rachel isn’t introduced other than the throwaways comments from people regarding her appearance, weight and height.

That is until Rachel arrives in England. This is where the film sets itself apart in two areas. The first part being Philips consuming hatred and loathsome attitude towards Rachel, and then the second being the infatuation and spell-like bliss Philip finds himself in.

But as I mentioned, this mysterious undertone carries itself quietly throughout the film and leaves you guessing throughout. Quite constantly. And it all centres around this ‘did she? Didn’t she?’ as she recounts her love for Ambrose, whilst the letters from Ambrose suggest otherwise. Rachel Weisz plays Rachel perfectly and this consistent mysterious air that surrounds My Cousin Rachel has stayed with me. And the question remains, did she kill Ambrose?

This is only but helped by the believable infatuation of Sam Claflin’s Philip. His puppy-dog gaze as he dismisses his earlier thoughts without a moments notice is brilliant. Unfortunately, the narrative does trot toward an unsurprising ending considering the events that unfold, but the brilliance of the characters by Weisz and Claflin do help it over that final hump.

Iain Glen and Holliday Granger do help the picture progress, especially as Nick Kendall (Iain Glen) becomes surprised and mentioned that Philip has become infatuated by Rachel. Their role in My Cousin Rachel becomes intriguing as they serve as confidants, but also a neutral party between Philip and Rachel, but they help narrative move through it’s 100+ minute runtime.

Although the music helped the mysterious manner of My Cousin Rachel, it did at times take me out of the film with the same laborious tune over and over. Aside from that and the aforementioned foreseeable ending the film didn’t have much to not enjoy. Roger Michell really does indulge himself with this picture and creates some gorgeous shots, including the short of Rachel and Philip walking out into the snow. The costume design really worked well as Rachel is constantly in black, almost as though she is in mourning, which helps with the intrigue of the did she, didn’t she element throughout the film.

I did enjoy My Cousin Rachel, but didn’t love it. It did work to a large degree with the intriguing mysterious narrative throughout, but the clear stars would be Weisz and Claflin in the leads, as they simply stole the show. This is only helped by the Roger Michell’s devotion to the costume period drama that My Cousin Rachel becomes and the crawling shots of the English countryside.

Churchill (2017)

Often it is said that Winston Churchill is the greatest Briton in history after successfully leading Great Britain through the tribulations of the Second World War. And it seems as though 2017 is becoming the year of films about Britain during the wars, as we’ve already been treated to Their Finest and Dunkirk coming out soon.

Jonathan Teplitzky takes on the legendary historical figure of Winston Churchill, with Brian Cox playing the extremely influential Prime Minister. Often with films that have their subject based around the war efforts, they become bogged down in the spectacle of bringing the war to the silver screen. What was enjoyable about Teplitzky’s take on this is he didn’t rely on this at all.

The only reference to the troops on the western front is at the start when Churchill takes a solemn stroll on the beach awash with the blood of the troops. Now it’s no shock that Winston Churchill was a great speaker that could rise the nation to their feet with a few choice words, and that culminated in his D-Day speech with the legendary words “we will never surrender”.

And that is where Teplitzky’s film takes place, in the lead up to the D-Day landings. And this is where Brian Cox as Winston Churchill takes centre stage and really sinks his teeth into this role. He looks the part as the grizzled Prime Minister that is at a loss during the war effort and cannot stomach that Eisenhower has taken over command of the Allied forces. He constantly chews on his cigar and wears the bulldog-chewing-a-wasp look that is just exceptional.

As I mentioned, Churchill was a powerful speaker but what I wasn’t anticipating in Churchill was the long monologues. Don’t get me wrong, Brian Cox was incredible in this role, but these monologues often lost my focus as he fought the high command on their proposed D-Day strategy.

The narrative divulged a largely unknown story and the butting of heads by Churchill and the rest of the high command for the allied forces regarding the D-Day Landings. Churchill strongly opposed this strategy, which caused riffs between him and his wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson) who was brilliant as the woman that supported the hulking man.

Churchill was a good, strong-willed film that fell down sometimes under the weight of it’s own monologues. The central performances between Brian Cox and Miranda Richardson were brilliant and bought to life this legendary character.

The narrative was enjoyable as it does explore a story that was unknown about one of most triumphant moments in the Second World War. But with the weight of the monologues that dragged through the 98-minute runtime, the film does feel a bit longer. As with the powerful monologues it has been said that maybe Churchill would have been better suited for the stage, and it’s clear to see why after Cox’s evoking performance.

Churchill was enjoyable for Brian Cox’s embracing the character of Winston Churchill and it becomes an up-lifting film that showcases the British attitude. This attitude was exemplified by Churchill’s assistant Miss Garrett (Ella Purnell) who believed in Winston to lead them through this war, but also being terrified at the thought of losing her fiancé. Churchill showcased a variety of great performances and exemplified how good Winston Churchill was as an orator, regardless of the dragging monologues. But will Churchill be the best film in the year of British war films? That I’m not so sure about, especially with another Churchill film coming soon.

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.

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.