A Long Way from Home

Director: Virginia Gilbert
Writer: Virginia Gilbert
Year: 2013
Cast: James Fox, Natalie Dormer, Brenda Fricker

★☆☆☆☆

Adapted from her own short story, Virginia Gilbert’s debut feature is a flimsy, insubstantial romantic comedy, built around a premise that lacks credibility from the outset. Joseph (James Fox) and Brenda (Brenda Fricker) have retired to the French town of Nimes, where they are able to enjoy the sunshine and good food, while carrying on the same banal lifestyle they led at home. Their daily routine includes Radio 4 and The Times crossword, and takes them to the same restaurant every evening, where they meet an attractive young couple, Suzanne (Natalie Dormer) and Mark (Paul Nicholls), who are on a short, romantic break. After striking up a conversation over dinner, Joseph develops an infatuation with Suzanne and starts following her around the tourist trail.

A Long Way From Home Film 2013

This never results in any confrontation, as Suzanne is surprisingly open to having an elderly stranger impose himself on her holiday; she even encourages him with some suggestive looks and mild flirtations. Her receptivity is partially explained by their shared enthusiasm for the local ruins and Mark’s irritating habit of taking excessively loud business calls, but the idea that there might be some attraction there is never remotely believable. Joseph comes across as sadly delusional, and no real explanation is given as to why that might be, despite some hints at a history of clinical depression.

The dialogue is stilted, mundane, almost ludicrously naturalistic and fails to give any psychological insight into the characters whatsoever. When delivering his lines, James Fox often looks as if he is expecting someone to immediately laugh in his face, and, more often than not, that would probably be an appropriate reaction. It is hard to know whether phrases like, ‘You can come over and use our pool any time’, are deliberately excruciating or just appallingly written, especially because there is nothing in the characters’ interactions that suggests anything untoward, or even surprising, has been said. You have to feel sorry for the actors, particularly Brenda Fricker, who comes across as admirably human in spite of the script. Her character is easily the most sympathetic and, even when she is forced to rev up her Irish accent and loudly exclaim, ‘Ah shite!’, she gives it full gusto and manages to draw a despairing laugh.

The Nimes setting is perpetually bathed in golden sunlight, presumably in an attempt to play up the holiday atmosphere. The visuals are pleasant but quickly become unbearably monotonous, although that is perhaps the intention. When Joseph takes Suzanne and Mark on a trip to his friend’s vineyard, there is a welcome change of scene, but the new setting merely invites new clichés. Mark enthusiastically discusses the business side of things with the owner, while Suzanne links arms with Joseph and indulges in an impromptu disclosure about her not-especially-troubled childhood.

The film is supposed to be a reflection about old age and the impossibility of regaining youth, but these aspects are ignored until the end and only ever dealt with superficially. It is extraordinarily safe and devoid of any conflict; even the dramatic climax peters out into nothing, although unfortunately not before introducing yet another preposterous plot point. It is a bewildering debut from Gilbert, who fails to demonstrate a shred of innovation or a basic understanding of how people interact with one another. Bad films are forgivable, but those which attempt nothing, and cannot even adequately portray that, are not.

Rob Dickie

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The Great Gatsby

Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writer: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce, F. Scott Fitzgerald (novel)
Year: 2013
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan

★★★☆☆

Baz Luhrmann instinctively felt like the wrong man to direct The Great Gatsby but there was always something about the combination that made you really hope it would come off. His films, like Gatsby’s parties, are gaudy, vivacious extravagances, alluring because of their grandiosity and nothing more, sensory illusions designed to conceal the fragility of the visions behind them. Perhaps inevitably, the result is an ostentatious, almost flagrant adaptation that is consistently entertaining but only ever half works, and leaves you wondering what might have been.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan The Great Gatsby

Luhrmann’s excess is glaring from the outset, as we are thrust into a mansion overloaded with gratuitous 3D effects and countless waiters in tuxedos walking simultaneously through French windows. As the characters move out into New York, it is a garish, digital jungle, full of loud, ornate vehicles, shimmering surfaces and unnecessary camera swoops. It is not so much a city where anything could happen, but a city where everything is happening, all at once, and it seems to be giving you a headache.

The parties look like set pieces from a big-budget musical, too glitzy and unreal, even for Gatsby, an amalgamation of elements from innumerable other parties but, despite the costumes, they do not come close to resembling anything the Fitzgeralds would have attended. The Jay-Z-produced soundtrack is inspired and injects energy into scenes that would have otherwise struggled to come alive. It is innovative, exciting and ultimately the only contentious point of departure from the novel that genuinely succeeds.

Once the flashy effects are out of the way and the focus shifts from the setting to the characters, the film really grows into itself and starts to hint at the depth that the story requires. Leonardo DiCaprio is perfect as Gatsby, striking the right balance between portraying the monumental myth and the flawed, vulnerable man behind it. The object of his obsessive dream is the careless, cynical Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who is bored by her wealthy husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) and his ongoing affair with a woman in the city. Mulligan, with her tragi-glamorous look, always effortlessly carries off this kind of role, while Edgerton gives a strong, oddly sympathetic performance as the crude, boorish Tom.

Like the novel, the film is narrated by Daisy’s cousin, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), although his character is placed in a sanatorium where he is receiving treatment for alcoholism and depression, which presumably developed as a result of the events that take place. You have to feel for Maguire – his character is poorly written – but he gives a strange performance and looks completely out of place as he contemplates everything that is going on around him. Deliberately confusing narrator and author, Luhrmann has Nick write the novel as a form of therapy and some of the more choice phrases drift across the screen in typewritten font. It’s a clumsy device, unnecessary and false, which makes it seem as though the whole point of The Great Gatsby was the writing of the novel itself.

The Great Gatsby Joel Edgerton Tobey Maguire

Aside from that, the adaptation is faithful in terms of plot, as it builds up to the catastrophic conclusion that sees every relationship in the film shattered irrevocably. The climactic scene is superbly done, without any disproportionate effects; the showdown between Gatsby and Tom is accomplished purely through words and emotion. Gatsby and Daisy’s initial meeting is another fine scene, taking place against the backdrop of Nick’s ludicrously flower-stuffed cottage, the slapstick elements enhancing the awkward emotion involved.

Luhrmann’s Gatsby is ultimately a love story, at its best when it focuses on the sweeping romance at the foundation of its protagonist’s fantastic dream. The bombastic style is only ever faintly ridiculous, distracting from several excellent performances and the invigorating score. It is clear that no detailed reading of the novel has taken place; the story is stripped of any subtlety and much of its depth. Some scenes are poorly misjudged, particularly the ending, which shows not a dream fading like a wisp of smoke but love and glory consecrated eternally by death. It is a film that is easier to criticise than praise, seeming as it does to revel in its own downfall. But actually, it’s not bad at all once you get into it, just not great.

Rob Dickie

Stoker

Director: Chan-wook Park
Writer: Wentworth Miller, Erin Cressida Wilson (contributing writer)
Year: 2013
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman

★★★★☆

Best known for the brilliant cult revenge thriller Oldboy, Korean director Chan-wook Park’s debut English-language film is stylish, seductive and frequently ludicrous, an unscrupulous Hitchcockian romp around an isolated country estate. Wentworth Miller’s first script is unabashedly derivative, lifting plot points, imagery and virtually whole characters from a number of sources, notably Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, but Park’s sharp direction ensures that Stoker is wildly entertaining in spite of its flaws.

Having lost her doting father in a horrific car accident on her 18th birthday, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is forced to live alone with her unstable mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), before her mysterious, charismatic Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) appears at the funeral and moves in to help them through their difficult time. Caught up in his overt refinement and clean good looks, Evelyn is oblivious to his true motives but India, who has vague extra-sensory powers and a odd, near-psychic connection with her uncle, is onto him straight away. He cooks them extravagant meals without taking a bite, hinting at the vampirism of the title, and tries to implant himself in every aspect of their lives. But it is only when their long-standing housekeeper (Phyllis Somerville) and India’s suspicious aunt Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver) disappear in quick succession that his violent nature is made explicit and we understand that he will go to any lengths to obtain what he desires.

Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode Stoker

Goode knows exactly the type of character he is supposed to be channelling and measures his performance perfectly, right to the borderline of pastiche, while Kidman is well-suited to playing the bored, desperate housewife. Wasikowska gives an equally strong turn; India is disturbed, tortured and only ever half-innocent, a high school student and social outcast trying desperately to become adult.

Her burgeoning sexuality is essential to the film and the way it develops as the plot takes shape is as inventive as it is disturbing. As you would expect from Park, there are some controversial moments, including a violent masturbation scene, but it is mostly kept respectable enough. Sexual desire is portrayed through orgasmic, dionysian piano duets, composed and performed by Philip Glass, or dancing provocatively to the inimitable Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra. The soundtrack works exceptionally well, as does Clint Mansell’s atmospheric score.

What is most interesting about Stoker is the way it imbalances, blurs the distinctions between reality and illusion, objectivity and subjectivity. There is some clever editing that toys with perspective and renders scenes out of sequence, implying that everything requires a second look. The film’s main weakness, though, is that some things still don’t quite add up. India can hear voices through a wall at a great distance and paint the inside of a vase without being able to see it, but, at times, is prone to missing what is right in front of her nose. It is meant to be disorienting, we are supposed to continually question what exactly is going on, but some plot elements are left underdeveloped, while others are verging on fantastical.

It is necessary to suspend disbelief, but the quickening pace ensures it never becomes too much of an issue. The second half is engrossing, particularly when the violence escalates and the complete family history is revealed. From the opening lines onward, there is much exploration of self-determination; the film questions whether we can ever be held responsible for what we become, especially when our identity is contrived before we are fully conscious of it. At the end of Oldboy, the central character takes responsibility for his actions in an infamous scene, whereas in Stoker the opposite occurs. An intimation of cultural differences, perhaps. Stoker is violent, but it is more perverse than horrifying, seductive than repulsive. It is a gloriously entertaining piece of cinema, brazen and almost tawdry, without meaning or conscience.

Rob Dickie