A STAR IS BORN***** It Sure Shines Bright!


 

FOR SO LONG, we’ve marvelled at the whizzbangerie, the pomp and glittering theatricality of Lady Gaga. But who knew she could evoke such raw, honest passion in a song? Who knew she could act as well as she did? Bradley Cooper (for me) cemented his A-class acting chops on American Hustle; but who knew he too could belt out a melody like this? (And not the half-assed pass-for-singing Ryan Gosling offered in La La Land). Who knew he could direct?

A Star is Born (version 4) has offered us two new stars, reborn in a new light in this immensely likeable movie. We witness the downward spiral of Bradley’s character, Jack, a charismatic rock star cowboy who falls head over heels for Ally, (Gaga), a waitress moonlighting as a singer in a Trans club. His search one night, after the adrenaline and energy of a concert, for a drink finds him both the drink and the woman he’ll shepherd to stardom and fall in love with.

The drink becomes his demon; the woman becomes for a while, his saviour.

As his star declines and hers rises, the story examines the delicate balance between artistic authenticity and commercial image making. Both Jack and Ally are fighting against their own personal imperfections: he has to fight his way past his failing hearing and his tinnitus; she has to overcome her looks. To Jack, she’s beautiful; to her, her nose is too big; to the industry she’s just not right.

Jack’s intention is for Ally to be the master of her own story, her own voice. He tries to shape her to always remain authentic to herself. But it is the shaping influence of her manager that succeeds. She is turned into brand and that creative soulful honesty is reshaped by her manager (Rafi Gavron) who turns her into a mix of Madonna and Beyoncé. A star may have been born, but marketing has determined its make up.

Jack however remains the tortured hard drinking cowboy, untamed by success. The last twenty minutes of the movie focuses on him, the doomed existential hero destined to ride out into the sunset. Perhaps it’s an ironic comment on America itself

In a sense, Ally the person remains a tender, loyal loving partner, and caring daughter (much is made of their contrasting family histories) still capable of finding something worthwhile to say. Ally the Star is a success but an unreal creation moulded to please a fickle crowd.

So though it’s a story about creativity, fame, success and music, perhaps it’s also really a sly and cynical look at how we all curate our own inner stars: either stay authentic and court, at best, modest success or be the brand you need to be. Screw authenticity. Your star is waiting to be born.

The chemistry between the two principals is tangibly strong. The directing really lulls you into the feeling that the intensity between the characters is shared by the actors. Only just acting folks. Maybe.

Bradley Cooper’s directing feels exciting and fresh. Certainly the opening scenes (some actually filmed live at Glastonbury) drops the viewer into the energy, sweat and sexuality of rock star performing. Cooper (who co-wrote) develops his story through a series of contrasts that build the tale. We shift from his ear-bursting sell-out stadium crowds to her quiet performance in the sleazy Trans club. He’s singing of his life; she’s singing a French pre war tune…too shy to sing from her heart. As she becomes more and more surrounded by handlers, he becomes more and more alone. And yet, though these two lives really operate on increasingly different planes, the love that binds makes nonsense of the differences.
The music is tremendous. Cooper and Lady Gaga are credited with writing most of the songs (along with a suite of others). So along with directing and singing, Bradley Cooper can now also add song writing, and screenplays to his CV.

Take a bow Bradley

 

A STAR IS BORN. Dir: Bradley Cooper. With: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, , Sam Elliott, Greg Grunberg, Dave Chapelle, Cinematography: Matthew Libatique (Mother!), Writers: Eric Roth (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) , Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters

 

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THE WIFE*****Outstanding


THE SCRIPT (from Jane Anderson) is word perfect: that balance between the convincing conversations of fully realized people and philosophical, thematic heft. The acting (especially between the two principals Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce ) is peerless. Indeed the nuances of Close’s portrayal of Joan Castleman, the eponymous wife – restrained, agonised, celebratory and finally steely determined and angry – is probably a career best and, thus far, the Oscar shoe-in. Interestingly the role of Joan as a young woman is beautifully played by Annie Starke, Ms Close’s actual daughter. And Swedish director, Bjorn Runge’s directing is for the most part unobtrusive (though he can’t resist amping up the score at times to underline the drama); it allows his actors room to shine.

This would not be the movie to miss this year.

The very complex story, from the book by Meg Wolitzer centres around the awarding of the Nobel prize for literature to Joe Castleman (Pryce). He is lionised and feted by the awarding committee as the man whose genius and emotional insights have reframed the idea of the novel.

But, as one investigative biographer (Christian Slater as Nathaniel, the faux charming snoop) seeks to discover, is this true? For a medium that presents its truths through ‘lies’, what really is the truth to this much celebrated genius? Certainly Joe has created a neat narrative, a sort of self-hagiography, that he presents to the world. But it’s, mainly, a lie. The Wife presents a world in which there are self-protective fictions we wrap around ourselves. These necessary shields mask the deeper truths about our real, and private, selves.

The truth Nathaniel, the biographer, feels he’s unearthed is really the wife’s story: Here’s a woman who was herself a talented writer – a woman writer in a male, misogynist literary club – who has been shunted aside; whose public role is to be the -unrecognised, almost anonymous – adoring supporter in chief, a woman who has chosen to ignore his serial affairs and must forever “stand by your man”.

It’s a revelation worthy of a hit book.

Joe, the man she stands by certainly is a shit. He humiliates her publicly (snidely noting to one group that “my wife doesn’t write”); he’s a dismissive father (possibly threatened by his son’s literary talents) and is really only focused on himself.
But the truths of the tale are far deeper than the clichés of “self obsessed shit marries long suffering wife”. They go to the heart of identity and our sense of self…the real truth of who we really are, who we’re acknowledged to be and how much of ourselves we need to keep private.

As Joan herself observes to Nathaniel, “I am much more interesting than you think”. The only further ‘reveal’ she’s prepared to acknowledge publicly, aggrieved by her husband’s grovelling praise of her supportive role, is her enigmatic comment to her Nobel host that she’s “a kingmaker”.

For really, despite the (public) sense that she’s been hard done by, she’s (privately) been able to find genuine artistic fulfillment and private self worth in ways that remain forever closed to public consumption.

The story cleverly fools us into thinking we’ve figured her out, but its real ‘reveal’ is one of those that delivers that satisfactory “aha!” to drive us into reconsidering all that’s gone before.

A second or third viewing is definitely called for.

 

THE WIFE. Dir: Bjorn Runge. With: Glenn Close, Christian Slater, Jonathan Pryce, Harry Lloyd, Annie Starke. Written by: Jane Anderson (screenplay); Meg Wolitzer(novel). Cinematographer: Ulf Brantas. Composer: Jocelyn Pook

 

Glorious Ireland. A Short Visit


SO, MAINLY IT rained; dull, light-absorbing veils of fine, misty rain that would occasionally belch a heavier downpour, spritzing any hope for a glorious view. It was as though the entire world had turned glaucomic. Then again, this was Ireland. And this was late September.
You takes what you gets!

And then, occasionally, announcing the ‘better’ days to come with an unexpected glare of what could be Nabokov’s “brief crack of light”, the curtains would part, and a glorious, glowingly green world of rolling pastures, calm unhurried ports and lolling cows would reveal itself to skeptical eyes. It is not the green of vernal English pastures; this is a green undercoated with bright photons of yellow and blue. The result is a singular kind of luminescence…Irish emerald.

Kinsale, our first stop, is a small pretty village that embraces a crowded armada of yachts. Too small to boast its own cinema (yikes). But large enough for the three book-jammed bookshops and a full blown literary festival. This presence of a literary love spilling out into the hurly-burly of everyday life was something we came to recognize (appreciate?) as quintessentially Irish. All that and a belly-full of tempting restaurants would deny any categorization that Kinsale is a mere tourist seaside resort. (Though from the vantage point of our holiday villa felt it very much like that)

Cinema lacking, notwithstanding, the place is rich in history. Created in 1223, it’s the site of a famous battle (of Kinsale) in 1601. Here, a mongrel army of Spanish and Irish soldiers were defeated by the English. The Spanish went back home to their tapas. And the old Gaelic culture of Ireland died on the battlefield.

But this would not be the first attempt of the Irish to wrest themselves free from their colonizers. Four hundred years later (in 1921) after sporadic battles and never giving in to the English yoke, Ireland was partitioned and became an independent republic.

Blarney Castle, home of the Blarney Stone and mythical heart of Irish eloquence, is not far away. It’s a stunning castle hewn out of a mountain rising into a cloudy sky, framed by a necklace of blossoming flowerbeds and undulating brooks. If you’re prepared to queue for an hour and hang upside down suspended by belts, you can kiss the stone. You don’t need to. Get in to any taxi and experience the ongoing one person stand up (or sit down) routines of endlessly engaging storytellers.

Pubs, penance and palaver. Ireland in four words.

Of the surrounding towns, Clonakilty, birthplace of Michael Collins (commander in chief of the Irish Free State movement) is a pleasant, if forgettable market town. It does have one grand claim to fame though: it’s the home of world famous (they claim) Clonakilty black pudding…which certainly deserves its fame.

It is the even smaller town nearby – Timoleague – that’s more interesting. Here, legend has it, beekeeping and honey had its beginnings in Ireland. But more dramatically, this is the location of the grand, dark, ruined majesty of Timoleague Abbey. Founded in 1240 by Franciscan monks, by 1620, it was a centre of European learning; a hub of visiting philosophers. Twenty years later, Cromwellian soldiers – a rapacious nasty lot – sacked it and burned it down.
It’s not only ignorant ISIS jihadists who, fearing knowledge seek to destroy history.

The centre of the attractive city of Cork, famed for its rebels and its harbour, boasts a magnificent airy local marketplace on one side (the English market) and a fascinating art museum/opera house/theatre on the other. Food and culture. They represent one dimension of the city. But the web of stores that knit these two places together – Boots, WH Smith, Next, Top Shop, Fat Face, Starbucks, H&M etc – are another dimension; they suggest that a hundred years after the victory for independence, England and global businesses have once again colononized the place.

For all it’s attractive architecture (and there’s a gasp inducing cathedral – St. Fin Barre’s – at the far end of town) the heart of the city looks just like any other town made faceless by globalization. It is the little cobbled back streets that give it its soul.
Cork seems poised between a little city that could and a little city that could have been.

The graceful river that threads its way through the town (with the wonderful name, the Lee) is not embraced by the city; it seems more a problem to be overcome (build bridges) than an asset to be celebrated (build boardwalks). But follow it Eastward and the girdles that hem it in soon loosen and at Cobh (pronounced Cove), the river exhales into an expanse of cold clear water flowing toward the sea. It was from here that the Titanic set sail; as did almost three million citizens, bound (mostly unwillingly) for brave new worlds.

It’s a pretty little town easily reached by a short train ride.

After all those martial shadows, nice to arrive at this elegant, humming city of literature. Dublin (from the Viking, “Dyfflin”) is birthplace to Yates, Joyce, Wilde, Shaw, Beckett, Goldsmith, Stoker, Swift, O’Keefe, Sheridan. Oh, and Bono too. An entire Eng. Lit. 101 born in a single city. The place simply reeks of culture. It must be the water…and the way they distill it here with hops and barley.

No wonder the city revels in its literary traditions. There are statues, an entire museum dedicated to its writers, murals, landmarks and, it seems, daily celebrations of its gorgeous, mellifluous reinvention of English. How nice it is to bump into a statue of Joyce and not some obscure slave-owning colonial overlord. Trinity College Dublin boasts a library that holds over 200,000 rare manuscripts including the famous Book of Kells, an illustrated bible that dates back to 800ACE. A limited edition copy is yours for a mere £22,000.

This pub-dense city is split down the middle by the River Liffey.

Each side of the divide considers their side best. The choice seems to be between the style and erudition of the South v the polyglot proletarian energy of the North. The genteel v the gritty. Of course, in this island, there are more profound North/South divides. But we won’t go there.

And, to us wandering strangers, apart from the liveliness of the touristy Temple District, there are two landmarks that seem to visualize the South: The rarefied academia of Trinity College Dublin, founded by Elizabeth I (and resolutely Protestant since then) and the hallowed Guinness brewery (attested here by this delightful park: one of the man public spaces donated and created by the Guinness Foundation), an alcoholic shrine to the black stuff

The North felt like a place of transformations: a marsh turned into a village, a church turned into a pub, a maternity hospital turned into a cinema, a cinema turned into a McDonalds, a Street turned into a boulevard…

and best of all for both North and South, a colony turned into a Republic.

 

 

 

THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST***Barely Makes the Grade


YAWN.

HERE’S ANOTHER coming of age drama; this one with the added trendy frisson of SSA (same-set attraction) to give it “edge”. Set in the 90’s, Chloe Grace Moretz is the eponymous Cameron Post, a quietly rebellious teenager, whose lesbian relationship with a fellow schoolmate is unmasked by her (male) Prom night date when he comes upon them making out. It’s a nice touch that this inversion of (the then) accepted code of heterosexual attraction would occur during the very night meant to underscore American coupling: the bizarre tribal mating ritual of Prom Night.

Cameron is promptly dispatched by her troubled aunt (For some reason that really has no relevant reason, Cameron’s parents are both dead) to God’s Promise. This is a place of Christian fellowship where the aim – of its brother/sister team (John Gallagher Jr and Jennie Ehle) – is to forcefully pray away the gay of its small group of troubled teens. These spiritual leaders are really a stand-in for the mores of the broader society that, based upon the scriptures, has deemed homosexuality a sin (like murder).

What the movie never interrogates is the extent of their honesty or cynicism. What it does make clear, is that sexual choice is an integral part of who we are. We exist as sexual beings. So any attempt to deny this, to change it, is an inevitably doomed enterprise. The teens at God’s Promise (all seen through the prism of their sexual “deviance”) are faced with the stark choice of self-loathing (and in one case, traumatic self-harm) pretense or rebellion. But in the end, no amount of self-righteous bullying or piously mouthed prayers will contain natural desire. We all need the freedom to be who we are (duh!)

The movie certainly offers enough flashes of shouty self-hate drama to give an impression of real people in the throes of identity loss and confusion. But essentially the narrative arc of the movie goes nowhere very slowly. Cameron morphs from gay teen to…gay teen, during which time her expression changes from pouty rebel to… pouty rebel.

Chloe Grace Moretz has masses of on-screen presence. We want to be on her side. But that’s it. (Compare her one note performance with the magnificently moving one by the young Angelina Jolie in Girl Interrupted). Ms Moretz lacks the nuanced ability to take us into her internal drama. The result is a movie that feels curiously flat.

Gay conversion is as laughably as it is frighteningly absurd. But The Miseducation of Cameron Post has nothing new – no new insights, no new ways of seeing – to add to our understanding (and collective liberal rage). It merely confirms what “we” already knew. It’s a movie smugly happy to have a conversation with itself.

(That said, the Miseducation of Cameron Post this is one of those rare movies driven by a strong cadre of outstanding women: director, writer, editor, cinematographer, art director, costumer director etc. A small crack in the Hollywood glass ceiling)

 

THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST. Dir: Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behavior).. With: Chloe Grace Moretz (The Equalizer), Sasha Lane (American Honey), John Gallagher Jr (TV: The Newsroom), Jennifer Ehle (TV: The Looming Tower). Writers (from the novel by Emily Danforth): desiree Akhavan, Cecilia Frugiuele (Appropriate Behavior). Cinematograher: Ashley Connor (First Match). Composer: Julian Wass (Tangerine)

 

AMERICAN ANIMALS*****Outstanding


FROM THE GET go, the movie asserts that it isn’t “based on a true event”, it is true. And by such an assertion, the outstanding American Animals immediately taps in to the zeitgeist of the moment: just what is truth? Who gets to define it?

Certainly the events – the sad story of what unfolded – are “true”…at least real. But the memories of these events, filtered by time and distortion and the collective amnesia of panic, make for other layers of truth and lies and fuzzy ambiguities.
The facts are straightforward: four naive college students (played by Evan Peters, Blake Jenner, Barry Keoghan and Jared Abrahamson) hit upon the dumb idea of stealing a number of rare books (First edition Audubons, Darwin’s “The Origin of the Species” etc) from their college library. To them, this isn’t grand larceny, it’s a heist that they’ll pull off with the easy panache of Danny Ocean and his Eleven. It’s their romantic idea of self-transformation…of creating identities that’ll lift them away from the sea of human sameness they see around them.

And thereby hangs a tale.

The entire collective experience of this group of kids in how to pull off the job is gleaned from heist movies and Youtube. There’s no real getaway plan, other than someone’s mom’s station wagon; there’s no thought-through means of “fencing” the stolen loot, or, for that matter, how to (harmlessly) incapacitate the librarian in charge (the wonderful Ann Dowd from The Handmaid’s Tale). Their big idea is to disguise themselves as old men (based on the -true- insight that nobody notices old people).

But as their juvenile plans morph into realities; as their feeble attempts to back away (to not “cross the line”) crumble under the inertia of events set in motion, the personal identities they’d hoped to construct for themselves degenerate into their public identities…as losers, criminals and jailbirds.

Slick heist turns into comic caper and ends in bathos.

Director/writer British BAFTA winner Bart Layton structures his brilliant narrative about truth, memory, identity and time by interspersing the drama of the action with interviews with the real persons involved. Now, ten years after the event, their personalities and memories reshaped by the passing time, they look back at who they once were with rueful sadness.How could they have done such a stupid thing? It’s the question their parents, teachers, others ask throughout the film.

The answer, director Layton suggests (and my reading of the meta narrative) lies in his critique of existentialism. Four young men are determined not to let their societies’ expectations program their futures and bury their individualities. Their need, as with every person at that cusp of adulthood, is to make an identity based on personal desires and ambition, not the desires and ambitions of parents and peers…To find “being” in “nothingness”.

These four fulfill the existentialists’ ideal of becoming true and unique individuals. They also end up in jail. They end up needing to remake themselves, chastened and shorn of the fiction of their existentialist imaginations.

Sadly, truth will out.

The style of the movie, as befits a director who cut his teeth with documentary style video journalism almost feels like a docu-drama. There’s an un-showey, often deliberately down beat naturalism that gives the drama a compelling energy. It’s a clever style that encourages the feeling of “truth”, its central theme.

There’s another fascinating layer to this richly intelligent film. As things begin to come crashing down, these dumb-ass kids, so propelled by the adrenaline of the moment…living in the now…suddenly become aware of the banal reality, not the glorious dream of “what the future holds” for them. Their naive attempts to craft who they are, run smack into the realization of what they’ll become. The present collapses at the idea of the future.

The interviews with the “real” characters (narratively) exist in the present…as they reflect on the past. In its insights into the nurturing and formation of identity – our sense of self – the film plays on the link between identity and time. The past of course no longer exists. It “exists” only through the filter of memory, which Layton shows as an untrustworthy guide, yielding many “pasts”. But since identity (who we are now in the present) is the cumulative impact of these untrustworthy memories and the unknowable future, identity remains ever elusive and unknowable.

The movie ends with a kind of truth: the synopses of what the four men do now: write, paint, teach, go back to college. It’s their way of remaking themselves; of making a lie to a past that labeled them criminals. But, criminal or painter? Criminal or writer? Who really are they? Can we ever really know the “truth” of a person? Is a person’s identity static, or are we all ever-evolving Darwinian animals?

Only time will tell.

 

AMERICAN ANIMALS. Dir/Writer: Bart Layton (The Impostor). With: Evan Peters (X-Men, Apocalypse), Blake Jenner (Billy Boy), Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Jared Abrahamson (TV: Travelers). Ann Dowd. Cinematographer: Ole Bratt Birkeland (TV: The Crown). Composer: Anne Nikitin (Calibre)

 

 

BLACKKKLANSMAN***** Brilliant


THIS BRILLIANT MOVIE is the successful result of some wild directorial risk taking. Essentially, Spike Lee manages to effortlessly combine laugh out a loud black comedy, cum buddy movie with news footage and fierce, passionate anger. It really shouldn’t work. But it does, quite spectacularly. So that even though you know in the few feel good moments that the director is going to pull the rug from under you, when it happens it’s both shocking and cliché busting.

The story centres on the (real life) undercover penetration of the KKK by a black police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and his White (Jewish) doppelgänger Flip (Adam Driver). Ron is the smooth, white sounding voice on the phone that insinuates himself into the local KKK chapter; Flip is the public face to the voice (and, ironically, the one in the face of clear and present danger from the White Supremacists he’s forced to cosy up to)

It’s a wildly ludicrous story that’s so far fetched it could only be true.

The narrative is bracketed by two powerful vignettes: It begins with a scene from Gone With the Wind. We see that movie’s final shot of Scarlett O’Hara searching for her lover among the serried rows of the war wounded and dead. The scene slowly pans to a flapping, torn Confederate flag (an icon that punctuates many of the scenes). This image was meant to suggest the passing of an era.

Not so fast, Lee suggests. The militant nostalgia for the all-white values of an antebellum South are alive and well in the seething, cross-burning Klan, an organisation as antiemetic as it is racist.

BlacKKKlansman’s closing vignettes replay news footage from the recent Charleston riots when Nazi Supremacists (Let’s just call them what they are: terrorists) attacked a crowd and were exonerated by their White supremacist President.
Lee is suggesting that the race issues that sparked the Civil War have never gone away.

The past is the present… the grim reality of USA circa 2018.

The story is strategically set in the late sixties, the mid point between Emancipation and today; the point when post Civil war anger finally began to manifest itself, just as Black pride and Black resistance, stoked by a charismatic Stokley Carmichael began to rise.

It was a time… of Afros, Vietnam, Blaxploitation movies, David Duke, the Black Panthers, cross burning and of course racist police harassment. It’s presented as a neat foreshadowing of today…this recent past viewed through the prism of a sort of seeding ground for today’s mainstream MAGA racism. But it was also a time when the integrationist dream of Black and White cops working together like Ron and Flip and their entire department – an oasis of togetherness in a desert of institutional racism – could have become a reality. At a meta level this is the director’s own moment of nostalgic yearning.

The careful balance in this absurdist serio-comic take between the political and the personal is made to work because Lee allows his characters their full scope to develop as people, not mere symbols or expressions of a theme.

John David Washington (The US TV series, Ballers) is almost as charismatic an actor as his father (Denzil). His Ron Stallworth is an earnest, naive, super-confident man with the endearing swagger of someone who’s as proud of his job (as the Colorado PD’s first “coloured officer”) as of his well manicured ‘fro.

As his sidekick, Adam Driver gives one of his better (understated) performances as a person forced to reluctantly come to terms with his Jewishness. Even the miscellany of Klansmen are also nicely sketched, from the ever suspicious, slightly manic Fritz (Jasper Paakkonen from Vikings) and his adoring wife (Ashlie Atkinson) desperate to prove her Supremacist loyalty. There is a chilling scene in which the two of them are nuzzling each other lovingly while they make plans to blow up a Black gathering.

In one of the final scenes, the Klansmen have gathered, under the auspices of David Duke, to anoint the new recruits. Part of the anointment ceremony is a cathartic viewing of the bilious Birth of a Nation.

“The horror, the horror” of US race relations is its dangerous offspring.

BLACKKKLANSMAN. Dir: Spike Lee. With: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Alec Baldwin. Writers: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee. Cinematographer: Chayse Irvin (Hannah). Composer: Terence Blanchard (Inside Man)

 

 

 

THE CHILDREN ACT*** Theatrical


EMMA THOMPSON’S FIONA May is Oscar worthy brilliant in this thought provoking if overly literary tale. She is an imperious, dedicated, workaholic senior magistrate, with little time for her patient, long suffering husband. And, critically, little time for sex. Her one indulgence is the piano. There, she can crack open the door to what little passion still animates her law constrained soul. Jack, her husband (Stanley Tucci, in the thankless role of man as wimp) clearly thinks the world of her, as he constantly reminds her. But, as he also reminds her, eleven months of sexual abstinence is, love notwithstanding, just too much to bear.

And he’s a good looking man with someone literally waiting in the wings; no need to hunt for the release he so needs. But he’s also an honest upfront man who feels it his moral duty to warn her of his temptations.

She’s unmoved by his “plight”. An affair, to her, would mean the end of the relationship; or as Jack notes: “You won’t have sex with me and you won’t tolerate me having sex with anyone else”

Here’s a marriage without a spark…a bloodless marriage where love and fidelity is expected to substitute for passion. It’s not so much a loveless marriage as a sexless one. Marriage without sex. What’s the point really?

The symbolism of blood as life and vitality is played out in a judgment she must rule on. A young man (Fionn Whitehead from Dunkirk) is dying and in need of a transfusion. But his express wish, in keeping with his (or at least his parents’) religion, forbids it. She – or the law- must choose between the gift of blood and life or fidelity to faith (They’re Jehovah Witnesses) and certain death.

Adam – the young man- is seventeen and thus, still legally a minor. And the eponymous Children Act makes the decision clear: the State must protect the life of a minor. But, in an unexpected twist, and against what would be her better judgment, she visits the sick boy in his hospice bed. Between them – this seventeen year old boy and this fifty plus year old woman – a spark is ignited.

Perhaps he is a reminder of the child she never had; or a living proof of the meaningfulness of her profession. Or, symbolically, of the human need for feeling to give life to…life.

Thompson’s tremendous portrayal of this deeply unsympathetic character fights against authorial intrusiveness to make her feel almost real. We become privy to the confusions that beset a life so well calibrated and controlled when unexpected emotion sneaks in.

Justice May is the central actor in the lives of three men: her husband, Adam, the young man and her assistant (Brilliant Nigel Pauling as a cringe-worthy servant). All three of these are subservient to her; supplicants to her –bloodless- God-like approbation. Even as Adam becomes more and more obsessed with her (She saved his life after all), she seems blissfully unaware – or indifferent – of her influence on “her men”.

It’s all too messy. For her, the dispassionate law is a much more controllable environment.

The problem with the story is that its narrative arc is too mannered…feels very self consciously literary. It unfolds via a series of contrived parallels and contrasts:
Justice May’s unexpected passion for the boy is balanced by and contrasted with her husband’s very expected passion for another woman. Her’s is maternal and asexual. His is less so.
Her judicial eloquence is paralleled by her interpersonal muteness.
Her self-protective armory of the gown, her robes, her carefully coiffured grooming comes apart symbolically in a night of drenching rain and emotional collapse.
The literary conceit of the blood as literal (Jehovah Witness) carrier of the soul v blood as emotional carrier of passion is clever but pat.

In the end, the story’s thematic meditation on the nature of relationships is often insightful, but marred by its contrived glibness. There’s a paint by numbers feel to the whole enterprise.

And despite Emma, her character feels more like a layering of attitudes in service to an idea, than a “flesh and blood” person. And, as my wife has pointed out to me, herein may lie the crux of the matter: it’s simply poor writing. It’s a question of and understanding of the dynamics of empathy. Justice May is deeply empathetic to the cases she supervises; she’s simply indifferent to the reality of the others around her. Has her judicial empathy exhausted her interpersonal empathy? Her lack of a sexual relationship with her long suffering husband is one of the core narrative pillars of the story. But there is no attempt to explore this vital dimension. Why has their sexual relationship collapsed?

Jack’s character is a mere passing anecdote. He supposedly represents the antithesis of her bloodlessness: a man of great love and enduring moral probity animated by necessary passion. But he’s a dull and boring character…a neutered man essentially as sexless as her. Perhaps the story would have been better told from his POV. Author Ian McEwan seems to understand men better than women

Or perhaps the big flaw in the production was simply to have the author (The story is from Ian McEwan’s book of the same name) adapt his own book. It’s a good story that needed reinterpretation for and not simply transliteration to the screen.

 

THE CHILDREN ACT. With: Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Fionn Whitehead, Nigel Pauling. Dir: Richard Eyre (Notes on a Scandal). Writer: Ian McEwan. Cinematographer: Andrew Dunn (Bridget Jones’s Baby; The Lady in the Van)