Kill List

Director: Ben Wheatley
Writer: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley
Year: 2011
Cast: Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley, MyAnna Buring

★★★★☆

Billed as the best British genre film in years, Kill List comes with a reputation considerably greater than its budget. The second feature from writer-director Ben Wheatley, it is a dark, surreal hit man film that you are not likely to forget in a hurry.

Kill List

It opens as an unnerving family drama, with extended scenes that depict a former serviceman, Jay (Neil Maskell), recovering from the psychological trauma of combat and the glum reality of unemployment. His relationship with his wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring), is turbulent to say the least, and, even their young son, Sam (Harry Simpson), appears afflicted by the claustrophobic domestic situation. Brought up on war stories and his parents shouting through the walls, his playtime revolves around conflict and, in an early scene, he is shown cutting his father while he is shaving at the sink. Wheatley creates an atmosphere in which nobody can be trusted – Jay can only listen helplessly while Shel pours out her emotions in a foreign language down the phone – is she having an affair? is she a spy? It is impossible to know. The disconnect, the extent of their mistrust, becomes significant as the plot progresses.

The tension, wrought from the outset, is finally released at a dramatic dinner party, which sees the introduction of Jay’s partner, Gal (Michael Smiley), along with his new girlfriend, Fiona (Emma Fryer), who has more to her than meets the eye. Jay and Shel fight viciously, with plenty of collateral damage to the crockery, before reconciling unconvincingly. Afterwards, Gal encourages Jay to forget what has happened in the past, alluding to a disastrous mission they undertook together in Kiev, and accept a job that they have been offered. It is simple; three people make up the kill list.

Once the action begins, it is brutal. We are told that these are bad people, they have to suffer. We have to watch. Wheatley pulls no punches and never cuts away, even when Jay takes a hammer to his victim’s skull; it is ruthless and visceral, but, at the same time engrossing. As well as the crude violence, there is something lingering beneath the surface, that unsettling feeling persists throughout the film, insinuating the presence of an unknown horror.

Kill List Ending

Close-ups are used heavily to create an obsessive, voyeuristic atmosphere and the way the British landscape is captured on camera, stripped of colour, devoid of characteristics, entirely banal, creates an impression of indefinable gloom. The film has a nightmarish quality and uses distinctive, unexplained images to heighten the effect, such as Fiona standing outside in her nightdress, waving slowly, pointedly at the window of a motorway hotel. The score adds to the disorientation; it is overt, in your face, made up of harsh sounds and curious whistles.

It  is this blending of the innocuous and the brutal that makes Kill List so engrossing. The tap-tap-tapping of the teaspoon against the cup, the domestic violence, the hammer blow to the head. It all seems connected somehow, like an expression of some inherent pent-up anger or collective death wish. Wheatley hints at a social commentary as well; the targets for assassination are a priest, a librarian and an MP; there are vague murmurings about the war. The message is not coherent, but you get the impression that there is something rotten at the core of the world that is portrayed.

The denouement only serves to confuse the message. It is arbitrary and slightly derivative, seemingly added for effect alone. Fortunately, as with the rest of the film, you can’t argue with the effect. The climax is a powerful piece of cinema, shocking and unsettling, played out by firelight in the dark. Exactly what it means will be debated – it probably won’t be fully understood – but, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Despite the confounding finale, Kill List is a wonderful British horror film, stark and brutal, superbly shot, with imagery to haunt you for years.

Rob Dickie

Byzantium

Director: Neil Jordan
Writer: Moira Buffini (screenplay and play)
Year: 2012
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones

★★★☆☆

Neil Jordan’s latest film, Byzantium, is a spirited if convoluted return to the vampire genre that seeks to rewrite much of the old mythology.

Saoirse Ronan Byzantium

Adapted by Moira Buffini from her own play, Byzantium was shot in Hastings, a setting that is overtly rooted in an illustrious history but appears grungy and anonymous in its present condition. As in his 2009 feature, Ondine, Jordan captures his surroundings beautifully, particularly near the beginning, contrasting the timeless qualities of the environment with those that are acutely modern. As the film flickers between past and present, grand ships, pristine sand and tranquil fisherman contrast with  concrete blocks, cheap amusements and the burned-out pier, while, at the same time, nothing really changes for those who inhabit the seafront – women can be bought for a price and the tide beats on. There’s a disorientating monotony to eternal life.

Clara (Gemma Arterton) and her daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) are two centuries old vampires, on the run from a mysterious brotherhood that are intent on making them suffer for their past transgressions. After Clara is discovered working as a stripper, they are forced to flee their high-rise flat and end up in a small seaside town, where Clara quickly integrates herself into the criminal underworld. She sets herself up as a prostitute and exploits a local loser, Noel (Daniel Mays), by taking over his late mother’s guesthouse and turning it into a brothel populated by desperate women from the streets.

The eternal cycle of vice and the degrading, precarious existence it leads to causes tensions between Clara and Eleanor, who are worlds apart in terms of personality. Clara is feisty, seductive and violent, prepared to kill anyone who threatens to uncover their secret and use her body to obtain whatever they need to survive. Conversely, Eleanor is passive, introspective and refuses to use violence, feeding only euthansically, on the blood of elderly people who tell her they are ready to die. They are evidently extremely close, with the bond of centuries between them, but it is increasingly apparent that Eleanor needs something more to live for than the battle for survival that Clara appears to relish.

The divisions between the two protagonists are mirrored in the makeup of the film itself, as it moves swiftly between vivid action sequences and quiet, reflective scenes, which can be slightly jarring. Flashbacks are also used heavily, causing the film to lack momentum, particularly in the early stages, as the present-day storyline is continually broken up by lengthy elucidations of the past. However, these are essential to the narrative and become progressively more engaging as the film reaches its conclusion, tying up the loose ends in the plot and expounding an original mythology that contains some impressive imagery.

Gemma Arterton Cleavage Byzantium

The problem with Byzantium is that it tries to do too much and fails to combine each of its disparate elements into an entirely cohesive whole. There are scenes in strip clubs, further education colleges, nineteenth century orphanages, postmodern seafronts, all awkwardly juxtaposed with one another, and the changes in atmosphere when the film switches between them are just too drastic. The script is bloated and needed paring down to its essentials, with more focus on the relationships that keep it going and slightly fewer lines of clunky dialogue.

The strongest element of the film is the romance that develops between Eleanor and Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a haemophiliac who becomes attracted to her when he hears her playing the piano in a hotel restaurant. Eleanor is desperate to reveal her true identity to someone – she is continually writing down her story and throwing the pages to the wind – and he provides an outlet for her to do so. His initial disbelief about her supernatural status is well handled, while his unwavering faith in her basic goodness is touching, even when he can’t quite accept who she claims to be. The scenes in which his blood is spilled are the most visceral and moving in the film, the only moments that come close to portraying the tortuous nature of a vampire’s existence.

Jones’s performance is also the standout, bringing out Frank’s innocent curiosity and resigned fragility to create a compelling and genuinely believable character. Ronan is a haunted, withdrawn presence and her steely blue eyes are used to great effect, but her performance is a little too serious and lacking in variation. Arterton overplays her character from time to time, although she is full of zest and vigour, exuding sexuality in a way that is powerful and assertive, while Sam Riley is solid in his supporting role as the aristocratic Darvell.

Vampires are undoubtedly in vogue, although Byzantium, to its credit, strives to bring something new to the genre. The updated mythology is inventive and interesting; thumbnails extend into talons to pierce the skin and people are transformed into vampires through a meeting with their doppelgangers in an eerie island cave. It is shot well, as Jordan’s films usually are, and has plenty of interesting imagery. However, that doesn’t quite make up for the film’s structural flaws, especially as it occasionally descends into almost soap opera melodrama and the ending is something of a disappointment.

Rob Dickie

I, Anna

Director: Barnaby Southcombe
Writer: Barnaby Southcombe, Elsa Lewin (novel)
Year: 2012
Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Gabriel Byrne, Eddie Marsan

★★★★☆

Screening in both Edinburgh and Glasgow as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, I, Anna is a neo-noir thriller with a psychological twist. Charlotte Rampling stars as the title character, a mature femme fatale who is suffering from amnesia and dissociation due to a traumatic experience that takes place at the end of a singles night.

The film is directed by Rampling’s son, Barnaby Southcombe, who presents the story from Anna’s perspective and places the emphasis on her precarious state of mind. Reading the novel by Elsa Lewin, a psychoanalyst based in New York, he immediately identified the title character with his mother, even though the ‘story was not her own’. It is evidently a personal film, and this becomes increasingly obvious as the narrative develops and we realise that behind the mystery there is something far more significant at stake.

I, Anna Gabriel Byrne and Charlotte Rampling

The adaptation moves the action from eighties New York to present day London, emphasising Southcombe’s varied European influences. The director makes excellent use of his surroundings as the capital is transformed into a brooding concrete menace, centred around the brutalist towers of the Barbican complex. The environment is oppressive and has a looming, crushing sterility, which seems to serve as a warning to those hoping to find anything genuine in the warm, bubbly atmosphere of the singles bars.

However, there is an unlikely romance at the core of I, Anna. It begins inauspiciously, as Rampling’s character meets DCI Bernie Reid (Gabriel Byrne) at the scene of a murder and leaves with a discarded umbrella that clearly does not belong to her. With his own demons to battle, Bernie is no less unhinged than Anna and quickly develops an obsession with this elusive woman, who lives in a small one-bedroomed flat with her daughter and granddaughter. The camera is drawn to Rampling’s figure; it is often framed or shown in close-ups, sliding down her legs, demonstrating that older women too can be dangerously seductive.

The retro elements and heavily stylised look of the film work well, giving it an unreal quality that seems to reflect many of the characters’ states of mind. Anna is frequently found in phone boxes, no doubt a nod to the noir of the past, but it also serves to intensify the mystery and has a genuine narrative purpose. As an aesthetic device it is effective, particularly during the scene in which Anna and Bernie first meet, and, like all of I, Anna‘s initially improbable elements, it makes perfect sense by the end.

The soundtrack also pleasantly surprises, comprising a bleak, atmospheric score by French electronic duo K.I.D., interspersed with acoustic tracks by indie crooner Richard Hawley. Southcombe originally had something very different in mind, a lyrical piano score, but it did not work, and it is difficult to see how it could. The dark electronica seems to bleed from the dense concrete and Hawley’s voice is superbly aligned with those of the central characters.

There is a smart twist at the end which strips away the foundations of what has been constructed, but rather than complicating matters, it sheds light on much that had remained in doubt. It is, in fact, crucial to the success of the narrative, taking attention away from the comparatively weak murder mystery, which has been designed to facilitate the intriguing character study rather than the other way around.

I, Anna Charlotte Rampling

The performances of the leads are key to the film and they are able to carry it through the early stages when the narrative seems convoluted and the cast a few characters too big. Rampling and Byrne have excellent chemistry and we really feel for their haunted characters, particularly as the film reaches its climax. They are perfectly cast and equally comfortable in such uncomfortable roles.

I, Anna is worth persevering with as it quickly develops into a coherent drama that gives renewed purpose to its underwhelming beginnings. There are plenty of tense moments and a couple of shocking scenes, but what stands out is the delicate handling of the relationship at the heart of the story and, particularly in the midst of such a harsh landscape, the almost unbearable fragility of the mind.

Rob Dickie

Review originally published at the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival

What is this film called Love?

Director: Mark Cousins
Writer: Mark Cousins
Year: 2012
Cast: Mark Cousins

★★★☆☆

What is this film called Love?

A question in the proper sense, open-ended, unanswerable, something to think about long after the credits have rolled. It is a very personal film, a sort of meditative documentary, shot by Mark Cousins on a £100 flip camera during a lonely three day trip to Mexico City. To use the director’s own terminology, it is an ad-lib, a stream-of-consciousness take on whatever he captures with his camera, a film without boundaries that develops, through personal memories and free association, into a rough philosophy of life.

Loosely, it begins as a film about Sergei Eisenstein, a figure who evidently means a lot to Cousins. As he walks around the streets of Mexico City, which Eisenstein visited in the 1930s, he holds a photograph out in front of him and talks to an imaginary version of the Soviet director, which seems to have influenced his life and career as much as the real thing. While always slightly bizarre, this technique has the effect of turning a series of spontaneous observations into something resembling a purposeful piece of cinema.

What is this Film Called Love? Mark Cousins

Comparing his own filmmaking style to that of Eisenstein, Cousins uses illustrative shots to highlight different ways of seeing the world, demonstrating the effect that filmmaking has on your perception. Whether or not he consciously decided to come to that point is irrelevant – as a wandering director with camera in hand, it was inevitable. The most interesting scenes are those that explicitly deal with film, which is, after all, Cousins’s passion and area of expertise. What is this film called Love? is at its best when he opts to analyse the characters on a street corner as if they were in a Jacques Tati film, or captures a shot of a motorway bridge because its diagonal lines remind him of the geometry in Soviet cinema.

The Mexico City scenes are interspersed with holiday footage and dream sequences, which are used to elucidate some of Cousins’s observations and provide catharsis to the busy, unaesthetic metropolis. The use of montage is also excellent, and the choice of music, which includes some new PJ Harvey tracks and Tony Christie’s Avenues and Alleyways, is inspired.

Eventually, the film settles into a quasi-philosophical tone, structurally and thematically reminiscent of the bestselling novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. Central to the novel is the Vedantic expression tat tvam asi, which means you are that, and Cousins’s real achievement is translating this principle into the medium of film. Using the camera, he develops a deep connection to the world around him, finding beauty and significance in everything. He makes it personal, into a part of himself. This is what he means by love.

It sounds extremely promising, but much of what you take from the film has little to do with its execution. The narration tends to be heavy handed, and the female narrator takes something away from the intimate tone, despite her misplaced protestations to the contrary in the concluding scenes. The film often comes across as self-indulgent, a little too private for public viewing. Cousins ultimately fails to make the experience as much ours as his. At one point he says that it is not a serious film, but we are forced to take it seriously in order to engage with it.

Like Pirsig’s novel, I have found it difficult to get out of my head without being particularly impressed by it at the time. The ideas are there, as a work in progress, but the limitations of the project are all too obvious. The rough approach may be liberating for the filmmaker but sacrifices must be made in the final product. Cousins does not succeed – he does not genuinely try to succeed – in making a film, but has nevertheless captured something tangible and true.

Rob Dickie

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Director: Lasse Hallström
Writer: Simon Beaufoy, Paul Torday (novel)
Year: 2011
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas

★★☆☆☆

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is one of those films that could easily be a metaphor for its own production. You can imagine the guy pitching it: “I want to make a film about a Sheikh who tries to bring salmon fishing to the Yemen?” “A film about salmon fishing in the Yemen?! That’s absurd! How? Why?” “Purely because it’s absurd. That’s the beauty of it. It will work, have faith. Just to make sure, we’ll throw in a complicated romantic quadrangle, a just-about-still-topical political angle and enough charm to prevent people just sitting there shaking their heads in disbelief. Trust me.”

It begins with the beautifully named Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) approaching Dr Alfred “Fred” Jones (Ewan McGregor), a government fisheries expert, with a proposal for constructing a river in the Yemeni desert and transporting 10,000 wild salmon from British rivers so her client, the Sheikh (Amr Waked), can fish. Fred naturally ridicules the idea, but, under pressure from the Prime Minister and his dogged press secretary (Kristin Scott Thomas), both desperate for a feel-good story from the Middle East, he agrees to meet Harriet and discuss the project. Before he knows it, everything is in motion and he begins to chase after the impossible.

It sounds like it should have been a political satire, like the novel by Paul Torday it was based on. It does have satirical undertones, but they are far too tame to be taken seriously. The war in Afghanistan is treated soberly, but nothing else comes close to being a target – Anglo-Middle Eastern relations, the Prime Minister’s shameless PR efforts and even terrorist attacks are only ever lighthearted asides or superficial plot developments. Kristin Scott Thomas gives a vibrant and engaging performance, but her character is just a glamorised Malcolm Tucker, without the depth of character or genuine sense of being under pressure.

Lasse Hallström clearly opts against making a satire, instead using the story as a vehicle for the kind of feel-good film he is known for (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat). Quite what there is to feel good about in an oil-rich Sheikh’s decadent vanity project is not immediately clear, though Hallström extracts as much as is humanly possible from the grand folly of it all. The main point of interest is the relationship between Fred and Harriet, which has the effect of transforming the salmon project into an overly figurative backdrop. McGregor and Blunt have enough chemistry to make it work, and you would probably end up rooting for them if there was even the slightest hint they might not end up together.

The one area the film does succeed in is the comedy, which draws plenty of laughs all the way through. It is very British in character, exploiting Fred’s reserve, eccentricity and awkward attempts at telling jokes. There are some excellent lines and very funny moments, which makes it a shame that the rest of the film does not support it.

Aside from humour, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen offers little, and the elaborate project it is built around seems wasted. It takes you from London to Scotland to the Yemen but, while this offers aesthetic variety, you get the feeling that the essential story could just as easily have taken place in a New York office. The plot is clumsy, with too many arbitrary developments and emotional twists, particularly towards the end. It tries to be stupidly charming but ends up more charmingly stupid, and only that because the leads are able to inject some comic life into a film which was always likely to fail.

Rob Dickie

Coriolanus

Director: Ralph Fiennes
Writer: John Logan, William Shakespeare (play)
Year: 2012
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave

★★★☆☆

Ralph Fiennes makes a strong directorial debut and also stars as the title character in this contemporary adaptation of William Shakespeare’s lesser-known tragedy Coriolanus. The bard’s language and Roman names are retained, but the setting and minor characters are given a distinctly eastern European look, while the soldiers are kitted out with modern uniforms, rifles and explosives.

Coriolanus suffers from the idiosyncrasies common to all cinematic modernisations of Shakespearean drama, but the setting gives it a raw edge. The news sequences, showing amateur footage of popular uprisings, are all too familiar, and the tragedy of the proud tyrant is as contemporary as it has ever been. Certain shots feel immediate and real, but they are juxtaposed with the clear archaism of the language. You get the impression that lessons should have been learned. The extent to which Coriolanus captures the aesthetic of the past year is slightly fortunate – it was shot in the first half of 2010, prior to the beginning of the Arab Spring – but the effect is nevertheless powerful.

Coriolanus Ralph Fiennes

The film opens with a march on a grain silo, which is blockaded by Caius Martius (later Coriolanus for those unfamiliar with the play) and his forces of riot police. The march is suppressed violently and Martius confronts the crowd, openly contemptuous of their demands, and leaves them defeated. Shortly afterwards, he is called upon to fight for Rome against a Volscian army and bravely leads a raid on the city of Corioles, which is being held by his old enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). His heroism in battle earns him the position of consul from the senate and, temporarily, from the mercurial populace.

After these loud, gritty action sequences, the film develops into a fascinating character study. Perfidious tribunes manipulate the will of people and Coriolanus reacts explosively against their demands for popular rule. In a sense, he epitomises the kind of uncompromising tyrant that it is currently fashionable to overthrow, but he also possesses integrity in that he refuses to rule by a lie. Fiennes gives a powerful skin-headed performance in a role he knows well, and is supported elegantly by Brian Cox as the objective senator Menenius. Vanessa Redgrave also gives an outstanding performance, with her portrayal of Coriolanus’s domineering mother, Volumnia.

The film loses its way slightly as it goes on, and the personal vendetta appears strangely distant compared with the intensity of the political struggle. Gerard Butler’s Aufidius is a curious character throughout; he is as placid as he is menacing, and his true role remains ambiguous until the very end. The rivalry is talked up but does not effectively fulfil its promise.

Placing Coriolanus in a familiar world was an intelligent move. Regardless of his faults, his bravery and integrity make this a true tragedy and, in that sense, it deviates from the mood of the times. We are given his perspective, and it is he, not the populace, that we sympathise with. The script, for better or for worse, was already written. It feels like it would have been more correct to see the tyrant fall at the hands of the people, although the fact that he doesn’t raises interesting questions and ensures there is no absolute sense of déjà vu. But regardless of any interplay with contemporary events, the strength of the drama makes Coriolanus very much worth seeing.

Rob Dickie

Extended version of a review originally published in The Student on 24 January 2012

Hanna

Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Seth Lochhead, David Farr
Year: 2011
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett

★★★★☆

Hanna was marketed as a reasonably conventional thriller. Fortunately, it turned out to be anything but conventional.

The title character is a specially-bred 16-year-old assassin, played by the excellent Saoirse Ronan, who has spent her entire life being trained by her father, Erik (Eric Bana), in a northern European forest. She has no experience of the outside world, knowing only what Erik has taught her, namely some impressive combat skills, verbatim encyclopedic facts, just about every language in existence, and a smattering of the Brothers Grimm. A rather drawn out opening sequence at the forest hideout establishes Hanna’s skills and character, and we learn something about her relationship with Erik. She then decides that she is ready to go out into the world, but not without first assassinating Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), the villain of the piece.

The first scene of genuine interest involves Hanna’s escape from a holding facility, which looks like a combination of Area 51 and the headquarters of a Bond villain. The score is by The Chemical Brothers, and you get the impression that the action sequences were written more for the music than the other way around. The escape scene is highly-stylised industrial grandeur, all metal ducts and looming grey blocks. Later, Erik fights a group of government assassins in a garish orange room and there is another excellent scene at a cargo dock. All could conceivably be expensive music videos. Hanna is worth seeing for the score alone.

Hanna combines splendidly over-the-top visuals with The Chemical Brothers’ block rockin’ beats

The holding facility from which she escapes turns out to be in Morocco, and there she is forced to adapt to the real world, whether this involves bonding with a holidaying family or adapting to the horrors of modern technology via a somewhat slapstick panic attack. Around this stage, I was losing patience with the film. Despite some impressive acting and cinematography, it gets rather messy. The tone shifts so frequently that you don’t know where you stand. It moves too casually between being a serious thriller, a kitsch action film and a coming of age tale. Nothing seems to be holding it together.

Surprisingly, it achieves cohesion through a combination of fairy tale elements and surrealism. The more implausible moments, such as Hanna skipping through a campsite with her new best friend, right under the noses of her pursuers, gradually make sense. Her innocence and relationship with the world become more meaningful. Cate Blanchett really comes into her own as her character is transformed from government conspirator to Big Bad Wolf, and Tom Hollander gives a fantastic against-type performance as the perverse assassin Isaacs.

The more absurd Hanna gets, the stronger it gets, and by the time the characters converge on Wilhelm Grimm’s house, an abandoned amusement park, it is very entertaining indeed. As when you enter the houses in the fairy tales, things quickly take a turn for the worse. The conclusion is menacing and very surreal. At one point I thought Marissa had turned into a deer. Why shouldn’t she have?

Hanna would have been a better film if it had kept this kind of tone from the beginning. The first hour or so only works in retrospect. The inconsistency undermines the strong acting, visuals and especially the soundtrack. But once it gets past the silliness of taking itself seriously, it becomes a very watchable fairy tale thriller.

Rob Dickie