Tuesday, 14 October 2014


Set in early 1960s Poland and filmed, (appropriately? - behind the Iron Curtain things always did seem pretty monochrome), almost entirely in black and white, Ida tells the story of a young novitiate who is instructed to meet her only relative before being allowed to take her final vows. Without much enthusiasm, she sets off in driving snow from a huge, once beautiful, hopelessly delapidated building. In an unnamed city, she finds her aunt who tells her the true story of her family. Together they set off to find her parents' unmarked graves.

I don't want to spoil the story by explaining what happens. The important thing is that the film conveys better than anything I've ever come across the devastation - psychological as much as physical - of  post-war Communist Europe. The characters live among the wreckage of the recent past.

The performance of Agata Kulesza as Wanda, the aunt, is particularly outstanding, but no-one in the film is weak, (except perhaps the Dusty Springfieldesque singer, who doesn't seem to quite inhabit the period). The composition of the shots - if that's the correct way to put it; I need a course in cinema - is extremely beautiful. Despite the sombre subject matter there are even moments of humour. My favourite was when Wanda asks in a village pub whether the barman remembers the Lebensteins. 'Jews?' he asks. 'No, Eskimoes', she replies.

The film is fairly enigmatic. The first scene, in which Ida repaints the face of an old statue of Jesus and then helps her fellow novitiates raise it falteringly onto a pedestal in the grounds of the nunnery, may represent the reemergence, however precariously, of goodness as a force, in which case the final scene might be seen to reinforce this. All the same, rather than including an interlude where things appear to be on the point of resolving into a happy ending, I think I might have stopped the camera before an open window in the aunt's flat and left things at that.

Never mind. This is a minor quibble and I may have actually completely missed the point. The main thing is, if you've been searching all your life for a Sound of Music without sentimentality, schmaltz or cuteness, Ida could just fit the bill

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Gone Girl

The opening sequence of Gone Girl shows the America of recession, with shots of failed small businesses, reduced-price real estate and a deserted main street. Subsequently, tiny glimpses of this grubby world are allowed in occasionally - the main character's father's house, mainly; his twin sister's house, to a degree, (it is hardly horrid, just not aggressively glossy); a place that I think might be a trailer park, (but not a gritty one, or, if that is considered gritty, I dread to think what the film's director would make of Australian country town motels [for whose dagginess I have a peculiar fondness, but that is another story]).

Apart from those brief moments, the movie's subsequent action takes place almost exclusively in the honey-lit world of media fantasy - that golden, skipping-through-flowery-pastures, having-breakfast-with-shiny-kids-in-sparkling-white-kitchens environment that we have all had poured into our retinas for decades now. It is a world created in order to sell us stuff - insurance, breakfast cereal, pointless disinfecting kitchen-top 'wipes', lavatory paper, fast food. It is what has made many of us neurotic, barely able to convince ourselves that interiors are never really that perfect, that newness is neither a quality nor something that endures.

And if you want a true neurotic, Amy, (Rosamund Pike), the main female character of Gone Girl, fits the bill. Exploited by her parents, (David Clennan and Lisa Banes), for profit from her earliest childhood - their Amazing Amy books sell to an adoring public the story of a girl just like their own real daughter, but minus any of her failures - she acquires a husband, (Ben Affleck), who dazzles her with a projection of himself that he cannot maintain in the long run. The story of the film is the story of what happens when Amy realises she's been sold a dud.

The plot is thick with twists and turns of increasing unbelievability. The characters are flimsily drawn and scarcely credible, (Collings [Neil Patrick Harris] is nothing but a plot device masquerading in a person's clothing, surely), there is no explanation of how no criminal charges are brought for what must at least constitute manslaughter or why Go, [Carrie Coon], the main male character's sister, appears to have no life of her own at all. The two people I most wanted to see more of were the policewoman, (Kim Dickens), who pops up from time to time but remains undeveloped, while her deputy, (Patrick Fugit) is so clownishly blinkered in his judgments he makes Dr Watson look like a towering genius, and Tanner Bolt, (Tyler Perry), who injects the film with energy every time he appears on the screen.

I don't understand why this film has been acclaimed so widely. It's entertaining, but a bit long. It's very gory. It hints at something interesting about the dysjunction between what we are led to believe existence might be like if we buy enough of the right products and what existence is actually like, but it's not in the business of being deep and serious. It is as glossy as an advertisement - and, while it's possible to argue that's because it's making a critique of that kind of image-making, it ends up being too silly and unbelievable to do a good job of that. The real problem for me is that all the characters are so flimsy - without engagement I find it very hard to be seduced into suspending my disbelief.