Tusker is a respected novelist and Sam a recital pianist. They are a well-travelled, sophisticated couple who have been together for over twenty years. Taking to the road in an RV to travel across the north of England the couple establish their bond through humour and well-meaning bickering. The audience believes these men are beloved to each other. Tusker’s humour delights the staider Sam. Each moment between them is suffused with an intimacy that time has wrought and made strong.
The road trip appears to be at first a journey to Sam giving a recital, but it is much more. Along the way the couple stop at Sam’s family’s home where Tusker has organised a surprise party. Tusker is carefully setting up Sam for a life without him by ensuring he makes connections with others in their lives who can care for Sam once Tusker is gone. In a beautifully realised scene Tusker writes a speech which he is unable to read and it is Sam who takes on expressing Tusker’s heartfelt love and devotion to his friends, but especially his husband. Tucci’s expression of pride at his words mixed with a level of embarrassment for being unable to read them is just one of the perfect acting moments that the film has in plenitude. Indeed, the central performances of Tucci and Firth are what give the film gravity over sentimentality.
The subject of early onset dementia has been explored in films such as Julianne Moore’s best actress Oscar winning Still Alice. Unlike the aforementioned film Supernova doesn’t dwell as much on the diminishment of the person suffering from dementia. Tusker has moments where he loses words, or finds simple tasks like dressing difficult, yet he is still very much present mentally. For this reason Sam believes that they have more time to still be together as they were. It isn’t until he discovers Tusker’s writing box and the deterioration of his ability to harness the written word that he realises that there is an urgency to the diagnosis that he had been repressing in the hope of staying with the man he loves.
After so many excellent roles it would be difficult to call this a career-best for Firth, but it is certainly some of his finest work. In a lesser actor’s hands the emotional weight that Sam carries through his being could have been lost. Firth makes us believe the love between the couple is inviolable. Even when he finds something that shatters his world and breaks his heart he doesn’t overact and lead the script into a place of cliché. Tucci for his part is excellent as Tusker; a man who knows enough of himself to know what he is losing. It’s clear that he’s been the more social and outgoing partner in the relationship, but for all his extroversion he has relied on Sam to “sit there and hold up the universe.”
There is undeniable compassion for Sam and Tusker, but it is never overplayed to the point of schmaltz. Perhaps that restraint is built into the script, but it is mostly apparent through the measured performances of the leads. Intimacy is established through the everyday interactions; hands touching, the shared beds, the small jokes and needling. The smallest movements are grand gestures of love but never overplayed.
Writer/director Harry Macqueen has created an astoundingly mature work, especially given his relatively young age of only 36. In concert with the extraordinary cinematography of Dick Pope SUPERNOVA serves as a visual and aesthetic experience that gracefully captures the rural English countryside.
Despite the melancholy subject matter there is abundant warmth in SUPERNOVA and even as tragedy approaches the central message of the film is the enduring nature of love. Like the metaphor of the infinite universe that Macqueen employs, there is a never-ending nature in the capacity of the characters to belong to each other so completely. A heartbreaking yet love affirming film that delivers on every promise it sets up.
As the women prepare to reveal the truth to Madeleine’s now-adult children and move to Rome together, tragedy strikes: Madeleine suffers a stroke. With the unsuspecting family and a nosy live-in nurse suddenly omnipresent, Nina struggles to care for her partner and express her own fear and anxiety.
Much like Amour, TWO OF US relies on the dynamic between its central couple feeling authentic, a challenge which Sukowa and Chevallier are more than up for. There’s a rhythm and vivacity to their early back-and-forth that perfectly captures a sense of familiarity and comfort; I wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d embodied the cliche and finished each other’s sentences. Likewise, Meneghetti dedicates several scenes to the women simply dancing around their living rooms, beaming contentedly with no other characters in sight. Such overt affection often risks becoming saccharine, but the performances ensure it’s not the case here.
Sukowa and Chevallier manage to be equally captivating despite the vastly different challenges of their roles. The former is electrifying, with the difficulty of even being in the same room as her partner accelerating Nina’s journey through the stages of grief. For instance, her offers to help take care of her ‘friend’ are tinged with just enough desperation and insistence to make Madeleine’s nurse question her motives. Sukowa’s delivery is pitch-perfect and the quick, subtle changes to her expression after being turned down are heartbreaking.
Although Nina is the more outgoing and extroverted of the pair, Chevallier maintains a quiet dignity and wisdom as Madeleine that I found fascinating. Most impressively, once she begins recovering the performance never fades into the background to become merely something for others to discuss. Rather, Chevallier is alert, attentive (albeit unable to respond), and at times surprising; it’s an incredibly empathetic turn on par with Emmanuelle Riva’s much-loved work in Amour.
However, Chevallier is also brilliant before the stroke occurs as Madeleine attempts to tell her children the truth. The script subverts expectations by grounding her reluctance in a fear of disrupting her family’s status quo, instead of homophobia. This subtle distinction gives Chevallier powerful material to work with during her early scenes, indeed, we see the doubt slowly creep over her, and later her regret for not speaking up.
Beyond the two leads, the most striking thing about TWO OF US is just how gorgeous it looks. While memorable cinematography may not be a prerequisite to the success of films like this, DP Aurélien Marra encapsulates both the warmth of Nina and Madeleine’s romance, and the isolation brought about by their secrecy. My favourite example of this is an early scene of the women preparing for bed: the soft lights certainly convey the intimacy of the moment, yet the even greater darkness of the room is a reminder that they’re only able to drop their facade in private. Meneghetti undoubtedly deserves credit for this as well; shooting group scenes using a wide-angled, almost fly on the wall approach is an effective choice.
TWO OF US delivers on its emotional premise with a thoughtful, passionate depiction of lifelong relationships. This is a remarkably polished debut from Meneghetti bolstered by leads who flawlessly understand and epitomise its themes. Anyone looking for a good old-fashioned tearjerker need look no further.
That’s all well and good, but numbers don’t always reflect accurately on whether a film is any good or not. So, does HI, MOM deserve the accolades that those numbers suggest? In short, yes, but maybe not for the reasons you might think.
Jia Ling (the co-writer, director and star of the film) is one of China’s top comedians who came to fame doing celebrity impressions on a 2012 TV show called Your Face Sounds Familiar, and then worked her way through a variety of films and TV shows, ultimately creating her own production company. HI, MOM (I have to say, that overly Americanised English language title really grates on me) is based on her own experiences of grief and loss after her mother died when she was nineteen. In 2016, Jia Ling adapted those events into a comedy sketch called Hello Li Huanying (a much better title) for Comedy General Mobilization on Chinese TV and then, over the next three years worked with Bu Yu, Sun Jibin and Wang Yu to develop it into a screenplay. At first blush, it’s not the kind of subject matter that immediately screams out, ‘this story oughta be a comedy’ and, for me, the funny stuff she’s created is not what lingers in the thoughts and reflections after the credits roll. There’s something deeper and more profound going on here.
HI, MOM is the story of Jia Xiaoling aka Ling (Jia Ling) who is a constant disappointment to her mother, Li Huanying (Liu Jia). The opening scenes of the film drive this home as we watch the mother cope with endless disappointment and letdown as her daughter grows from toddler to adolescent. It’s not for want of trying on Ling’s part, but everything she does from pooping her pants to forging entry papers to a college leaves her feeling that she’s never done anything to make her mother proud and that this is a major part of what Ling perceives to be her mother’s unhappy life. But after Ling’s mother is critically injured in a cycling incident, Ling finds herself inexplicably transported back in time to 1981, well before she’s even born. Here, like Marty McFly in Back to the Future, she encounters and becomes friendly with her mother as a young woman (Zhang Xiaofel). But unlike Back to the Future, there is no pseudo-scientific explanation for the time travel (in fact there’s no real explanation at all – but that doesn’t matter in this story), and unlike Back to the Future, Ling is not trying to ensure that her future mother meets her future father so that the life she knows can be created. Quite the opposite, in fact. Ling sets about making a happier life for her mother by doing her best to see the younger Li Huanying make better choices that will lead to a more fulfilling and satisfying future life. This includes playing matchmaker between her mother and Shen Guanglin (Shen Teng) the hapless son of the boss of the factory where she works. Again, unlike Back to the Future, Ling seemingly has no concerns for what might happen to her own unborn self if she succeeds in pairing her future mother up with someone other than her own future father.
The comedy in HI, MOM (for me, at least) is more ‘smiling humour’ than laugh out loud gags, but that’s okay because what frames the funny stuff is an examination of a young woman who seizes the unlikely opportunity of changing the past to produce unselfish outcomes for someone who she feels deserves better in both life and the kind of daughter she has. It’s these themes that have, perhaps, struck a nerve with the rapidly growing audience; the idea that women who have not been well served by marriage or motherhood or opportunity deserve better and that the ‘better’ is much more effective in retrospect. Anecdotally, this has translated to much more than just mega ticket sales, with reports of increased focus in the media (both journalistic and social) on the relationships young people have with their mothers and the issues of satisfaction and happiness ion their lives.
There is much to like about this film. Others may find the funny stuff funnier than I did (although there are two set pieces – a volleyball match and a talent night – that are really well staged for both physical humour and some funny lines (as funny as English subtitles can be) but what elevates the film above the need to live or die by its humour is the depth and slow burn of its storytelling and the uniformly strong performances that Jai Ling has surrounded herself with, especially the work of Zhang Xiaofel and Shen Teng. The three of them are the core of this film and are each eminently watchable and relatable. To be honest. I was pleasantly carried along by Hi Mom for the bulk of its quite long (over two hours) running time which probably sounds like I’m damning the film with faint praise, but that isn’t my intention, because something happens in the third act that completely changes the pleasant experience to something more potent and emotionally powerful. I’m not going to say what it is, butmy admiration for Jia Ling rose considerably when I realised that she’d taken a calculated risk by playing the long game with this film, rather than going for the quick and easy laugh. And it’s a risk that pays off.
HI, MOM is a warm and thoughtful film that presents Jia Ling as not only an accomplished writer and a talented director, but also as a highly engaging actor able to underpin the comedic veneer of the film with a heartfelt and genuine sense of wanting to say something about the kinds of opportunities for the expression of love and respect that a sudden death steals away from us. Don’t go expecting a laugh out loud gag-fest – but do go. And afterwards, call your mother.
HI MOM is currently playing in selected cinemas.
The upshot of this has been that many of us who, for some time, have been quite used to feeding our film fix via our smaller domestic screens with screeners and streamers and (if you’re old school) the occasional DVD, suddenly found these other screen experiences competing for our eyeballs – works that we would ordinarily have seen live in theatres and concert halls and galleries.
So, what’s this got to do with the Taub Brothers’ film EXTERNO? Well, while watching this visually rich and highly conceptual film I found, quite often, that I had to remind myself that this was indeed a film and not one of these interlopers - a virtual version of a kind of hybrid performance-visual-art installation piece that I was accessing on my flat screen in lieu of the actual experience. It’s out of this dichotomy (of my own making) that my two minds about the film formed and, by the time the end credits rolled, left those two minds with opposing feelings about how the film affected me.
Externo is the first feature outing for Argentinian brothers Leandro and Jonathan Taub. Whilst they share the producing and directing credits, Leandro picks up an extra couple of nods as both screenwriter and actor. Between the two of them, what they come up with resonates with Jonathan’s background in works that rely on an immersive experience heavy on visuals and music and Leandro’s extensive work as a novelist. But it’s not so much a story they tell as it is an idea or a response to the big issues that face the world.
Leandro plays Joseph, a driven and focused but somewhat spiritual man who is presented to us as a solitary and hermit-like figure rattling around in an abandoned and cavernous structure somewhere in an isolated wildness of bushland. Joseph has a plan for the world, a mobile phone and two thousand dollars in capital. With seemingly benevolent or well-meaning intensions, Joseph’s goal is to leverage the cash into a personal commercial fortune that provides him with global power. He achieves this one transaction at a time with the aid of Zeta (Christian Bargados) a disembodied voice on the end of his mobile phone. Into the endless routine of commercial transactions comes a woman (Elisabeth Ehrlich) known only as She, who interrupts Joseph’s focus on the accumulation of wealth and power by reminding him how his success can impact on humanity and the havoc his plan can easily wreak if he allows himself to deal only with the end goal, rather than the means by which he gets there. Joseph’s progression towards world domination is marked by title cards with ‘chapter headings’ and single, provocative words projected onto surfaces in both the internal and external spaces as well as visuals intrusions of stock imagery of the human impact on the world and environment.
It's here that I found myself alternating between seeing this work on the one hand as a film and on the other as a multi-media artwork. If I view it as a narrative work with some semblance of a beginning, middle and end, then I find it very quickly makes its point about global corruption and abuses of power and the influence of wealth and then has little more to offer than the same point repeated over and over. In this sense, I was engaged early but soon tired of the sameness of pace and setting and dynamic in the way it kept me essentially the same thing in slightly different ways. However, when I released myself from narrative expectations and started to consider the visual, performative and artistic aspects of the film, I found I engaged with EXTERNO on a very different level. I could imaging being immersed in the environment of this decaying structure surrounded by lush vegetation and encountering the performers as living visual elements of a highly conceptual installation (not unlike Punchdrunk Theatre’s astoundingly good, site-specific, multi-sensory installation-promenade-performance Sleep No More based in New York – if you’ve never heard of it, look it up).
The thing with this latter interpretation of EXTERNO is that it gives you permission to drop in and out of your artistic engagement and, to a large extent, make of the work what you will. For me, this kind of relationship with what the Taub brothers have created – like setting your iPod to shuffle mode – can still achieve the overarching goal of the concept without having to work your way through the plodding narrative. Viewed in this way, EXTERNO works a lot better for me than if I view it (as, no doubt, intended) as a more traditionally structured film. Either way there are provocative and interesting ideas embedded in EXTERNO, even if they don’t successfully coalesce around a narrative thread.
Hutch Mansell (Odenkirk) is a middle-aged man stuck in a rut. He wakes, commutes to a dreary accounting job at his father-in-law’s factory, comes home, wonders when his wife and kids begin to drift away from him, and repeats. As title cards crash unrelentingly through days and weeks in this opening montage, Odenkirk perfectly wears Hutch’s pathetic resignation; he’s a far cry from John Wick or Bryan Mills. However, after a home invasion threatens his family, something in Hutch snaps. Seeking revenge, he resorts to skills gained from his previous career as a contract killer for government agencies, only to inadvertently start a feud with a Russian mob boss.
If you’ve seen a trailer for NOBODY (or John Wick, or most Liam Neeson films from the past decade), Hutch’s secret past probably isn’t a twist. In fact, Kolstad’s script is keenly aware of this trope and subverted my expectations, instead choosing to slowly, and nonchalantly, reveal details and trust viewers to put the pieces together. This culminates in the wonderfully morbid recurring joke of Hutch telling his story to wounded mobsters, getting lost in his monologue, only to look back and realise his audience has already bled out. You hear enough exposition dumping in other films, so why waste time?
Odenkirk’s casting puts a fresh face on the familiar premise and is the clearest reason for the film’s success. NOBODY requires an actor that makes you sit up giddily and say “Really? This guy?” much like the first Taken film did with Neeson years ago. While his long-running TV stint as Saul Goodman has seen him associate with criminals, I doubt anyone has ever seen Odenkirk this close to the action. Nevertheless, he delivers a carefully measured performance capable of turning from submissive white-collar worker to stoic, world weary ass-kicker on a dime, and handles himself well during the expertly choreographed fight scenes (see below). Odenkirk’s comedic background also suits Kolstad’s at times tongue-in-cheek dialogue, like demanding that robbers return his daughter’s prized ‘kitty cat bracelet’ while somehow keeping a straight face.
Speaking of fresh faces, English-speaking viewers likely won’t be familiar with Russian actor Aleksei Serebryakov, though his eccentric turn as Hutch’s newfound nemesis Yulian makes a somewhat underwritten role memorable. There are plenty of archetypal displays of his sociopathy, such as beating up associates who are already in hospital, where Serebryakov is suitably intimidating. But I preferred the scene of him entering his nightclub and just singing and dancing on stage for over a minute without interruption. The song is in Russian (I think) and there are no subtitles, so it can’t be important for the plot. Did Naishuller include this scene purely to show that Yulian is a charismatic, if odd, figure? If so, it clearly worked on me, and I would’ve loved to learn more about him.
NOBODY is a tightly paced film, relying on MacGuffins and, as previously mentioned, viewers’ awareness of action tropes to keep the time between flashy setpieces to a minimum. In a film without much genre expertise behind the camera, this narrative slightness could’ve been an issue. Thankfully, the action is so infectiously fun that it simply doesn’t matter. From a claustrophobic five-on-one brawl on a public bus, to a climactic factory showdown featuring Home Alone-esque booby traps and a literal Chekhov’s gun, I was in awe of the impressive stunt work and Naishuller’s virtuosic direction. Notably, the camera is often close enough to see that Odenkirk is doing the hand-to-hand combat himself, a testament to his willingness to truly go out of his comfort zone for this role.
Consider this my plea to Hollywood that Bob Odenkirk be allowed to try any genre he wants, provided he’s surrounded by the right people. NOBODY wouldn’t work without such an experienced team behind it ensuring that its simplicity didn’t equate to lowered standards. The action sequences here are unlikely to live on in genre fame, but will easily live up to the expectations of anyone who loved John Wick or Taken. Nevertheless, the real draw of this film is its star, who demonstrably proves that you can teach an old dog new tricks and make it look effortless.
So, I give you the same advice. Even though it’s no longer in cinemas, seek it out by whatever means possible and try not to read up on it at all before you see it. In the meantime, I’ll try and say as little as possible about the film whilst offering my thoughts about why I think it’s so good.
I can tell you some things. It’s set in August 1943, so a couple of years before the atomic bomb would bring the war to an end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In an opening credit sequence we get to see a black and white cartoon training film in that WW2 era American animation style. It’s a cartoon that reminds us that USAF aircrews often blamed what they called ‘gremlins’ for those inexplicable mechanical failures that took place from time to time. The action that follows (and there’s plenty of it) takes place aboard a B-17 Bomber on a flight from New Zealand to Samoa. The crew is your stock standard band of oddballs, loudmouths and misfits with one exception – late entry, Maude Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz) a mysterious woman carrying a top-secret parcel. No-one seems to know why she’s on board, some question whether she’s really who she says she is, and most of them flex their misogynistic muscles by giving her a ribald hard time; all except nice guy Walter Quaid (Taylor John Smith). I think that’s about all I want to tell you about the story, except to say that before long some pretty scary things start to happen that are as much to do with an encounter with Japanese fighter planes as they are to do with the possibility that there’s something else on board that no-one was expecting. Oh, and of course, we’re all wondering what’s in that top-secret package.
Moretz, who often plays vulnerable or damaged young women in films like The Equalizer (2014), The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018) and the remake of Suspiria (2018) is perhaps best known for her superhero work as Hit Girl in Kick Ass (2010) and Kick Ass 2 (2013). In this film, she brings both these sets of skills together in a character that is reminiscent of Geena Davis as Samantha Caine in Renny Harlin’s The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996). She’s a terrific actor and this performance is compelling, especially during a long sequence where she has to carry the film on her own with almost no space for physicalisation. It’s a cracker of a sequence, but it’s not the only one.
This film is a real surprise. On the surface it’s a World War Two adventure but that genre is laced with generous servings from both the thriller genre and the horror genre PLUS it’s pretty funny when it wants to be. The cast (many of whom are not familiar faces) work well as an ensemble but it’s worth noting that in addition to great performances from both Moretz and Smith, there’s a standout role for Byron Coll as the curmudgeonly, hard- bitten Sergeant Major Terrence Taggart. They’re helped along by a tight and well paced screenplay co-written by Liang and Max Landis (although I was surprised not to see a nod to Richard Matheson in there for what this screenplay owes to a rather famous short script of his from the Twilight Zone days (along with several remakes). There’s also some impressive cinematography from Kit Fraser who is completely undaunted by the limitations of the tight and claustrophobically small spaces the set offers to the camera.
Of course, as you might expect in a film like this, plausibility is often put to the test, but Liang strikes such a deft tone with her direction that events and sequences that might otherwise pull the rug out from under, become moments of sheer delight and, in some cases, edge-of-your-seat suspense.
In the end, this is a hard film to pigeon-hole in terms of style and genre and an almost impossible film to talk about in any detail without spoiling the ride. But underneath all this it’s also a celebration of the contribution women made to the war effort and the roles and responsibilities they took on. Within the narrative, that aspect of the film may fall solely on the shoulders of Maude Garrett, but during the end credit sequence it’s amplified by some great images of real women doing real jobs in and around flying war mahcines in the forties.
Sadly, I suspect the timing of this film’s release – one of the first films to be thrown up on the screen for real live audiences who were keen to make their way back into cinemas after such a long closure – will have meant that it won’t have been seen by anywhere near the audience it deserves. But isn’t that what the streaming service are for? See it when you can but, more than not just giving away the end... make sure you don’t give away any of the surprises that happen along the way.
Using the premise that all animals are anthropomorphic 2-D cartoons, the film revolves around Tom trying to get revenge on Jerry for the mouse ruining his grift as a blind piano playing busking cat (with dreams of making it in the music industry). Jerry sees Tom’s act and decides to get in on the action so he can make enough cash to find a decent place to live – it seems that rents in NYC are restrictive even for mice. After ruining Tom’s gig and equipment Jerry finds himself at the upscale hotel The Royal Gate where co-incidentally a young woman named Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz) is running her own grift, that of being a highly skilled hotel employee when in fact she’s found that she’s not really suited to even basic casual jobs in the big city.
The Royal Gate is hosting the celebrity wedding of the year with Instagram famous couple Ben (Colin Jost) and Preeta (Pallavi Sharda) planning an extravagant event that requires the hotel to take on extra staffing to ensure it runs smoothly. Hotel manager Mr Dubrous (Rob Delaney) hires Kayla who has somewhat unintentionally used someone else’s credentials to help manage the event under the supervision of middle management Terence (Michael Peña). Terence is immediately suspicious of Kayla and takes a small level of dislike to her which sets up and cat and mouse game between the two characters as he tries to undermine her efforts.
Meanwhile Jerry has moved himself in to the hotel and has no plans of leaving. When it is discovered that a mouse is living in the luxury building it falls to Kayla to try to remove him humanely (although the threat of exterminators is bandied about more than once). In response she officially brings Jerry on to the hotel staff, much to the consternation of Terence. Hijinks ensue. Or to be more precise, they don’t, at least not to a level that will satisfy younger viewers.
For most kids the pleasure of Tom and Jerry is seeing them fight in ridiculous ways. The rivalry is so well known and understood that it’s the basis of the meta comedy in The Simpsons with ‘The Itchy & Scratchy Show.’ There are flashes of the dynamic that run through the film, but so much potential for slapstick cartoon action is wasted by the framing narrative involving the human characters. Tom and Jerry have an entire hotel and city to work out their famous rivalry, yet for most of the film’s runtime they are chaos producing characters that tend to make life difficult for the humans in the film. It’s a shame that director Tim Story (The Fantastic 4) doesn’t just allow them more time to run their absurd shenanigans as the major plot focus.
Although the narrative does a disservice to the animated characters, visually the film is quite rich. The 2-D animation works and is in many ways quite impressive. The production design is effectively the best thing about the film. Tom and Jerry both look as they should. Avoiding creating 3-D animated versions of the classic duo was a smart move as the film already seems miles away from what made the characters work – hence changing their appearance would only serve to further alienate the audience.
Chloë Grace Moretz commits to her role as Kayla, the human who Tom and Jerry interact the most with. Like Brendan Fraser before her, she’s aware of what kind of film she’s in and gives it her all without irony. Michael Peña seems less comfortable with the role and often his well-established comedic talents are wasted. Almost completely wasted is Ken Jeong who could just as easily been played by a number of actors with the same lack of effect. Writer Kevin Costello tries to throw in some amusing one-liners for the human actors but almost inevitably the jokes fall flat for both kids and adults alike.
The biggest mistake TOM & JERRY makes is to not invest in the formula that made the original cartoons successful. Over the top antics should trump stories about human beings listening to each other and finding their place. The lessons in the film aren’t aimed at the intended audience and they’re also not interesting or meta enough for the adults accompanying the children to screenings to find amusing or care about. In effect the film could have done with more rubber mallets and fewer set pieces with uninteresting and generally underwritten human characters. A lacklustre effort that will please few.
2020 | DIR: BEN MOLE | STARRING: SAM GITTINS, MICHAEL ELKIN, JOE EGAN | REVIEW BY DAVID NAGLE.
BEHIND THE LINE is a flyweight film with heavyweight ambitions. Despite the clear limitations of budget and experience, Behind looks to emulate some of the best World War II, sports, and World War II-sports movies around. From The Great Escape and the recent Dunkirk, to Triumph of the Spirit and Escape to Victory (and even Rocky IV), director Ben Mole’s film has a rich vein of cinematic history to mine. But it’s a shame that it never grasps which seams to focus on, which nuggets to keep and which to discard. Instead it becomes too much of a mashup of ideas and threads that would have benefitted from a tighter focus. A tight focus befits and benefits a tight budget.
Behind follows two members of the British Expeditionary Force who find themselves lost in France during their army’s retreat to Dunkirk in 1940. Former champion boxer Danny (Sam Gittins) and Billy (James Haynes) run into a local French villager and her father, seeking help to find their way home. But a tense standoff soon ends with the ever selfless Danny suggesting they surrender to the surrounding Germans. To await transfer to Germany the pair are taken to a nearby makeshift prison, where the commander notices Danny's name and spots the chance to make things a bit more interesting for himself. Commander Drexler (Tim Berrington) forces Danny into fighting for his and his superior's entertainment, all while he and the other prisoners plot a way to escape.
Drexler is an attempt at the ‘sophisticated’ Nazi villain, one who sees himself as only part of the war for his own purposes, above his “more zealous colleagues”. The shoots are there and Behind could have developed this more, could have given the audience something on the path of the iconic Hans Landa of Inglourious Basterds. He's not the only character that could have done with more development. While Gittins brings an easy, cockney wide-boy charm to Danny, he doesn't have quite the presence to hold the screen. Antonio Burstoff meanwhile, playing a French-Algerian prisoner, only gets one short scene but brings more emotional depth than any of the rest manage – maybe they should have focused the story on him.
Mole allows himself a few filmic flourishes – shadow boxing in the shadows, a stylistic introduction to Danny’s final opponent – but overall his direction is simple and would have gained from more play with lighting and varied lens choice. The fight scenes are tight but they don’t make the most of the inherently cinematic nature of boxing. It’s easy to lose the pattern of the fights, the rhythms of the round. The film also flies through its last 15 climactic minutes, while it paradoxically drags out earlier less hefty or necessary scenes. But it actually finds a confidence in those final moments that ironically brings the flaws of what’s come before into sharper focus. Had that confidence been extracted and extrapolated over the rest of the running time we might be talking about a wholly different level of film.
Overall, if you’re looking for a rough and ready movie made with the same boys’ own energy that the film tries to hark back to, then Behind the Line: Escape to Dunkirk might be for you.
Melinda (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) is a lonely gas station worker regularly feeling unnoticed and unappreciated. Early scenes provide the viewer with ample evidence for why Melinda has become so unhappy: her co-worker Sheila (Suki Waterhouse) coerces her into performing the most degrading, physically demanding jobs like cleaning toilets, while the customers refuse to thank her and lavish attention on Sheila instead. When the mysterious and troubled Billy (Josh Hutcherson) suddenly attempts to rob the station at gunpoint, Melinda finally begins to show other people how far she’s unravelled.
BURN is at its best when making inventive use of its claustrophobic setting to ramp up tension and back characters into often-literal corners. For instance, the cramped employee break room initially hosts awkward back and forths between Billy and Melinda, only for this to suddenly become a disturbing sexual assault, then a frantic game of hide and seek. Later on, as a police officer walks down a long corridor between the shop floor and the scene of a crime, the viewer feels Melinda’s heart beat faster with each step.
In the broadest possible sense though, Melinda is a weird and frustrating lead. The sheer specificity of her idiosyncrasies and obsessions make me sure that Gan had quite a specific vision in mind for her, but not enough of this ultimately ended up onscreen. As it stands, Cobham-Hervey delivers a suitably creepy performance to pique the viewers’ curiosity, but is too vague and icy for us to care what happens. Even if Gan didn’t want to show backstory, at least making passing references could’ve gone a long way to capturing a more precise characterisation. A key example of this is her long-standing obsession with Officer Liu (Harry Shum Jr.) which, while intriguing, isn’t explained in detail.
Furthermore, BURN struggles to come up with links between its more dynamic sequences, rendering the second half less satisfying. Hutcherson is absent for much of this stretch of the film (I won’t spoil why), a void which Gan fills by having Melinda largely resume her nightly work duties and try to keep cool about the preceding events. The result is surprisingly formulaic: a one-off character approaches Melinda with a query, a stray line of dialogue makes it seem as though all might inadvertently be revealed, but then it isn’t. It all simply feels like it doesn’t matter whether the audience is paying attention to these ‘scenes between scenes’, a problem exacerbated by the lifeless, smalltalk-esque dialogue.
Despite its shortcomings, BURN is a solid proof of concept for Mike Gan’s directorial style, showcasing his talent for both the genre, and coaxing unique performances from actors. I suspect that Tilda Cobham-Hervey is the main aspect of this film that viewers will remember, but I would also argue that the structure underneath her oddball turn is even better.