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The Wife

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In every couple there is the potential for an imbalance of power, partly because of the fact that one partner (the woman) belongs to a group that has been, as it were, hidden from history. Things have changed in the last hundred years or so, but it may not feel like that on the ground. In Bjorn Runge’s finely-crafted The Wife this essentially feminist territory becomes fertile ground for an examination of a marriage. It should be noted that, although the film has a male director, the screenplay is by a woman (Jane Anderson) adapted from a novel by a woman (Meg Wolitzer). And what a script it is too. It smoulders and crackles and every now and then, when required, it blazes.

Joe Castleman (the evergreen Jonathan Pryce) is a world-renowned author who has finally been awarded the Nobel Prize that everyone thinks he deserves. We join the story just as Joe and his wife Joan (Glenn Close) are heading to Norway to receive the iconic prize. The couple’s relationship is perfectly sketched in. We get the sense of how these two have come to their various accommodations, but, more than that, we also get what works for them in their marriage; the little jokes and the small familiar comforts of a lifelong partnership. Only at the very edges do we sense what might be the chafing points.

Given the great script, it is not surprising that the leads jumped at this. Pryce is an actor’s actor from way back and he is completely believable as the clever-but-stupid Joe who arrogantly takes his success for granted whilst pretending not to. Close is the revelation. Although she was tipped for greatness in the 1980s, she has often had underwhelming material to work with. Here, she is both subtle and deceptively intense. Acting awards will follow. An honourable mention for Christian Slater. He is often a slightly off-key kind of presence, but he makes a great contribution this time as the creepy journalist who wants to dig too deeply into the couple’s marriage.

All in all, it is a small film but one of considerable power. The ending is telescoped but the slow unravelling before it is both believable and gripping.

 
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Jirga (CinefestOZ)

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After all the military and colonial interventions in Afghanistan over the centuries, one thing we can conclude is that the place is not easily subjugated. That doesn’t seem to have stopped various countries having a go. The problem is that the more you try to suppress a movement the more it hardens up. The Taliban have not disbanded or lost influence. Australia of course is implicated at a national level in this conundrum as we still have some presence there.

This is the backdrop to Benjamin Gilmour’s remarkable little film which has just played in competition at this year’s Sydney Film Festival and is also in competition at the upcoming CinefestOZ in WA.

Gilmour travelled in the country and mixed with both local people and Aussie soldiers. The heart of his screenplay was going to be about a soldier serving in Afghanistan who had shot a civilian and who had later traveled back to somehow make amends with the family of the victim. Gilmour cast the actor Sam Smith in the lead role.

They then went to make the film on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is where the story of the film rather overtakes the film itself. Whilst they were filming, the crew was receiving rumours that ‘various groups’ were none too happy about the project. This then escalated to death threats and the possibilities of IEDs being planted in the caves where they were shooting. Standing on the stage at the SFF for a Q&A, the director seemed quite relaxed about this in retrospect, but it clearly wasn’t a joke at the time. For those interested, Gilmour has just written a bestselling paperback about the making of the film called Cameras and Kalashnikovs.

The film itself is short and effective. Some will find it a moving anti-war piece. The look of the film is quite arresting; the large dusty vistas are contrasted with urgent hand-held, up-close action sequences. The acting and the plot have to take a back seat somewhat, but given that they had to improvise some of the story and sequences under extreme pressure this is understandable.

As noted, this film has a very particular provenance. To say that the back story is more interesting than the film would be dismissive. However, when the back story is this interesting and integral, it is more the case that they can work together.

 
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Loveless (Gold Coast Film Festival)

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Andrey Zvyagintsev, the Russian director, has only made a handful of films but each one has been so extraordinarily assured that film festivals constantly award him gongs and knowing cinephiles eagerly await his next work. His previous film, Leviathan (partly financed with state money) showed his ambivalent relationship to the current state of Mother Russia. The film offended the authorities so much that they suggested he apologise to the Russian people. That is actually a weird compliment to the power of his critique. Loveless is his apology then. Not.

It centres upon a young couple, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin who was in Leviathan). They live busy lives in a modern European-styled apartment on the outskirts of the city. They have all the mod cons and seem to orientate their life to consumerism just like, seemingly, many other young Russians. They also have a twelve-year-old boy Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) but they are so busy arguing about their inevitable break up that they hardly seem to notice him. They both have new lovers to move on to and it seems that the only thing holding them back is the awkwardness of splitting. That, and their unloved son. When Alyosha goes missing, and the well-meaning but bureaucratic police tell them they do not expect to find him easily, the couple are stunned into re-assessment.

The film is many things; part police procedural thriller, part domestic drama, part social commentary. It is long, slow and deliberate but Zvyagintsev never puts a foot wrong and the themes of the film interleave and finally coalesce into a devastating whole. In some ways steering people to read the film politically does it a disservice. It is not a ‘political film’ in one sense at all. The politics are subtle and oblique. This is a sad and unsettling film, but it is also a beautifully realised piece of cinema. It is filled with a feeling of lament about the malaise that has hollowed out Putin’s authoritarian state, but it works on the heart not the mind.

Like Chekhov, Zvyagintsev shows us characters wasting their lives and becoming morally adrift, but he doesn’t merely blame them or make them caricatures to be manipulated from the outside. He is careful to show us how they got to where they are and there is a quietly insistent human sympathy for their plight and for the fate they don’t entirely deserve.

 
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Unsane

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Like Mark Twain’s death, rumours of Steven Soderbergh’s retirement have been greatly exaggerated. The Hollywood director is still relatively young, yet he recently announced that he was giving up directing after directing 25 features. He then swiftly re-emerged last year with a quickly-assembled crime caper Logan Lucky as well completing an impressive spell showrunning and directing for the small screen (the groundbreaking The Knick). Now he has made this psychological thriller starring Claire Foy (who struck fame playing the Queen on Netflix’s The Crown).

Soderbergh apparently shot this all on an iPhone 7. While it once again confirms that he is an experimentalist, it is not such a good thing to know about the film as you end up thinking more about how he could have gotten certain shots than the story itself.

The whole concept also shows the director working with and against tradition and genre expectations. It concerns the fate of an ambitious young career woman named Sawyer Valentini (Foy). When we meet her, we learn that she is trying to get over a nasty case of stalking from a fantasist called David (Joshua Leonard) who she did little to encourage. The sexual menace of this behaviour will have obvious resonance in light of recent heightened awareness in Hollywood of gender and power issues. Sawyer is anxious and that is why she makes the mistake of seeking help from an unscrupulous therapist. Without wanting to go too near spoiler territory let us say that she then finds herself a victim of the unwanted attentions of a for-profit psychiatric hospital. At some point, the director has to resort to intrusive explanatory dialogue scenes to explain how it is possible for this ‘medical’ attention to spin out of Sawyer’s control.

Thrillers set in or around psych wards have a long history and they have a rich vein of paranoia and personal disintegration to mine. They can mostly go in one of two directions; either they hinge on an unscrupulous mental health organisation abusing the patients for its own nefarious purposes, or they go down the road of teasing us about the unreliable narrator and wondering whether we can trust what she or he is seeing or relating. Soderbergh has a bet each way here and, while this is understandable, it also comes somewhat at the expense of our willing suspension of disbelief. For this reason, one suspects that thriller fans will find the last twenty minutes less satisfactory than the build-up. That said, Foy works hard to carry the film and she is ably supported by the supporting cast. Parts of the set-up of the film are so plausible and creepy that you kind of regret that the available denouements are so trammeled by movie conventions.

 
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The Death of Stalin

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Despite his exotic name (from his Italian father), writer/director Armando Iannucci is Scottish. He is a huge cult to those who share his deliciously vicious and richly-dialogued comedies. He is the brains behind Veep, In the Loop and The Thick of It. That list alone will be enough to have a lot of people lining up to see his recent foray into cinema. The other thing this film has is a fantastic ensemble cast of comedic and theatrical talents (Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Rupert Friend, Jeffrey Tambor and half a dozen other recognisable faces). Clearly, casting agents would have no problem persuading actors to work with this material.

It is set in Moscow. The year is 1953 and the feared peasant-tyrant Stalin is still terrorising all and sundry. His ‘court’ consists of those remaining Bolsheviks who have managed to toady their way into not being shot or sent to Siberia. They loathe and fear Beria (Russell Beale), Stalin’s chief spy and torturer who has the dirt on all of them. When Stalin has a stroke, Khrushchev (Buscemi) leads the crazed politburo in a madcap attempt to orchestrate the state funeral whilst out-manoeuvring each other’s schemes.

The film has some genuinely hilarious set ups and a nice mixture of farce and other styles of comedy. The banter between the players is expertly delivered and the author’s placing of the killer one-liner is much in evidence. The tradition of satirising the absurdities of Stalinism is a well-worn path of course. It has been done for decades, not least by many Russian and Eastern European playwrights and directors who lived through that era. That said, there are some aspects of Stalin and Beria’s cruelties that are so vile that it is hard to keep up the mask of comedy. Russell Beale has the range to cover all of this, of course, and he gives us a Beria worth hating. Still, the overall tone of the film is of an insane ride through an insane time. As one of the characters remarks, “I have had nightmares that made more sense than this.” That says it all.