Phil on Film Index

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Review Round-up - The Painted Veil, Straightheads and Magicians

The Painted Veil is one of those enormously frustrating films which is almost too well-made for its own good. This third screen adaptation of Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel is a beautifully crafted piece of cinema; the lush cinematography does justice to the film's superior location work, the evocation of China in the 1920's is rich and atmospheric, and the performances are first-class from top to bottom. But the film's elegantly crafted presentation seems to stifle the passions of this cruel and bleak tale, flattening out the story's emotional peaks and leaving us with a perfectly pleasant but disappointingly unaffecting drama.

Opening with a beautifully ornate credits sequence,
The Painted Veil is the story of Kitty (Naomi Watts) and Walter Fane (Edward Norton), two people trapped in a loveless marriage. Kitty was a woman heading towards spinsterhood in London, much to the despair of her parents, who married Walter in haste to avoid the shame of her sister marrying before her. The couple leave for China, where Walter works as a bacteriologist, but there is a constant awkwardness in their relationship, and Walter's habit of never speaking unless he has something to say means most of their evenings pass in uncomfortable silence. So it's little wonder that Kitty looks elsewhere for some sort of excitement in her life, and her roving eye settles on married British diplomat Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber), with the two beginning an affair.

The film's depiction of this affair epitomises some of
The Painted Veil's deficiencies. We see Kitty and Charlie engaging in flirty banter in a theatre, and then they are suddenly in bed together, but that's all we are given, with their first sex session also being the one in which they are discovered by Walter. Too much of Ron Nyswaner's screenplay seems rushed and underdeveloped, with the characters of Walter and Kitty feeling rather hollow as a result. The social pressures which force Kitty into marrying a man she doesn't love are never keenly felt, and Walter's unrequited love is only hinted at. Our lack of real empathy with these two characters is a major factor in the film's lack of emotional wallop, although the film improves significantly when Walter unveils his plot for revenge against his straying wife.

The doctor accepts a posting to Mei-fan-tu, a small Chinese village which is in the grip of a cholera epidemic, and he insists that Kitty must travel with him, or else he'll divorce her for adultery and leave her in disgrace. They take the longest possible route to get to their destination, with Kitty overcome by exhaustion and loathing for her husband, who gives her the cold shoulder at every turn. When they arrive at this disease-ridden outpost the film is enlivened by a few supporting characters, such as Waddington (marvellously played by Toby Jones), a sweaty ex-pat who acts as the Fanes' guide to this area, and the Mother Superior (Diana Rigg) who works at a local orphanage. These characters add a little colour to the claustrophobic story of the couple's deteriorating marriage, and the film also widens its scope a little here, often to wonderful effect.

The Painted Veil
has been directed by John Curran, and his work he is so much more expansive than it was on his last film, the dull and self-conscious We Don't Live Here Anymore. Working with cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh he exploits the film's beautiful locations superbly and gives us a very convincing recreation of a country going through a turbulent time, particularly in the film's portrayal of the almost impossible task faced by those attempting to control the epidemic. On top of all this visual splendour, Alexandre Desplat provides a truly lovely score, and there's no question that this is a pretty handsome package all round.

The Painted Veil never quite moves the viewer. We see Kitty and Walter gradually coming to view each other in a new light, but the film always seems to exist at one remove, keeping us at arm's length emotionally. The two leads work hard to inject some depth into their parts though, and Watts is particularly powerful, delivering possibly her best performance since 2001's masterpiece Mulholland Drive. It's a really wonderful piece of acting, sensitive and heartfelt, succeeding in making her initially self-absorbed character at least partially sympathetic. Norton is fine too, giving a tightly-wound portrayal of a man who keeps his emotions close to his chest. It's a very restrained performance, which is all the more impressive as a result, but neither actor can really do enough to fully draw us into their story.

The Painted Veil
's climax, as a result, is profoundly unmoving. Once again it feels rather rushed and not fully thought through; and it's frustrating to see this story of passion and pain, love and hate, being reduced to an elegant and tasteful piece of filmmaking which never gets the pulse racing. The Painted Veil is constantly enjoyable and often very impressive, but all it really leaves the viewer with is the frustrating sensation of wanting just a little bit more.

Dan Reed's debut film Straightheads also left me cold, but for very different reasons. The sheer unpleasantness of this loathsome vigilante thriller makes its 80-odd minutes a chore to sit through, and when the credits started to roll I was left with a single thought to ponder - who on earth is giving Gillian Anderson career advice? Since leaving The X-Files Anderson has given a great performance in Terrence Davies' The House of Mirth, and has been acclaimed for the BBC adaptation of Bleak House, but her big screen appearances have otherwise been restricted to small cameos here and there in various British films. Naturally, I assumed this talented and intelligent actress was simply biding her time, waiting for the right leading role to come along - but why on earth did she think Straightheads was the role for her?

This brutish film features Anderson as Alice, a successful London businesswoman who is having a high-tech security system installed at her swish apartment. The man doing this particular job is Adam, a loutish cockney geezer who is naturally played by loutish cockney geezer
du jour Danny Dyer. Even though Alice has only just met this boorish dick, she seems inexplicably attracted to him, and she asks Adam if he would like to accompany her to a party her boss is hosting in an isolated country house.

Frankly, nothing about this unlikely coupling rings true - particularly with the complete lack of chemistry shared by the two stars - and
Straightheads only gets sillier from this point onwards. On the way out into the country Alice stops to bend down next to the car to uinate ("are you watching me?" she asks Adam in a supposedly seductive tone), and after spending a bit of time at the party they have sex in the grounds, with Adam assuring Alice on the journey home that this is the best night of his life - the natural cue for everything to go horribly wrong. A stray deer steps out in front of the couple's car as they navigate the dark country lanes, and when they stop to remove the stricken animal from the road they are ambushed by three local thugs who savagely beat Adam and rape Alice, before leaving them bloodied and dazed in the middle of nowhere.

Six months later, Alice and Adam are still together, although he has lost the sight in one eye and has been rendered impotent since the attack. Alice has slowly been trying to rebuild her life, but when she returns home for her father's funeral she spots one of her assailants, and she begins to plot a suitable revenge. A suitable revenge, in this case, includes Alice anally raping one of the perpetrators of the original crime with a sniper rifle while Adam takes out his eye with a kitchen knife. An eye for an eye, and an arse for an arse, is apparently the way justice works in Reed's mind.

Perhaps the most depressing thing about this indescribably depressing picture is the sight of Gillian Anderson giving her all for such risible material. She brings an edge and ambiguity to her thinly-developed role, qualities which are in stark contrast to every other aspect of this knuckleheaded film. Alongside Anderson, Danny Dyer's performance is shown up for what it is - another lame piece of non-acting from a man with zero screen presence or charisma - and the three villains of the piece (Ralph Brown, Anthony Calf and Steven Robertson) are laughably one-dimensional brutes.

But it's Reed's handling of this repugnant material which really sticks in the throat. He seems to relish the opportunity to wallow in his characters' plight; he replays Alice's rape scene a couple of times, and Adam twice seems on the verge of a rape himself. What game is the director playing here? Is he trying to make some confused point about the emasculated Adam regaining his sexual potency through violence, or is it just another slice of shallow sadism? Frankly,
Straightheads has nothing to say, and it's hard to see any compelling reason for its existence. It aspires to the likes of Straw Dogs and Irreversible, but the complete lack of characterisation, subtlety or substance leaves it looking like a nasty, empty and purposeless exploitation flick, which is too long even at 80 minutes. Quite why the UK Film Council felt this film was worth National Lottery funding is beyond me; and the only bright spot one can gleam from a film like this is the hope that its leading actress might well take more care over her choices in future.

Of course Gillian Anderson isn't the first person to struggle with the transition from TV to film and she won't be the last. In fact, the British comedy duo of David Mitchell and Robert Webb have found themselves stuck at the same difficult juncture. The pair are on a roll as far as the small screen is concerned; their brilliant and innovative sitcom Peep Show recently completed a triumphant fourth series, and they received a BAFTA award last week for the sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look. Consider the additional fact that they're the face of Apple commercials in the UK, and things couldn't be much brighter right now for the duo.

Perhaps they felt now was the perfect time to capitalise on their popularity with a move into the multiplexes, but the vehicle they have chosen to do so with is an irretrievable dud which proves to be an inadequate showcase for their comic talents.
Magicians is another chapter in the current cinematic craze for tales of magic, but Andrew O'Connor's film operates on a far more modest scale than either The Illusionist or The Prestige. It is the tale of Harry (Mitchell) and Karl (Webb), two magicians who, as the opening credits tell us, have been inseparable friends since they were children. They have established themselves as a successful partnership, but their bond is destroyed when Harry catches Karl and his wife in a compromising position. During their next show the still-seething Harry makes a misjudgement during the guillotine trick, and his wife's neck pays the price.

Cut to five years later. Harry and Karl haven't spoken since that awful night, and both are struggling to make a new career work. Harry, working in a department store, tries to use his tricks to sell kitchen equipment, while Karl is attempting to jump on the Derren Brown bandwagon and reinvent himself as Karl the Mind-Monger. Both of them are in the doldrums, and fate - in the shape of a magic contest with a £20,000 prize - soon brings them together again. The pair reluctantly team up to try and claim the cash, but Harry's resentment at his former friend's betrayal is still evident.

There's the potential for a decent comedy in here somewhere, I'm sure there is, but it's hard to see any sign of it under the dull-as-dishwater visuals, slack plotting and the complete dearth of humour. The lack of laughs is all the more disappointing because the film has been scripted by
Peep Show creators Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, but there screenplay contains none of the ingenious plotting or sharp dialogue which that show has been characterised by. The film's narrative moves forward on straight and predictable lines, and first-time director O'Connor composes his shots with the emphasis on banality, rarely mustering up the imagination to find anything as visually interesting as Peep Show's trademark point-of-view shots.

The film does benefit from the partnership at its centre, though. Mitchell and Webb have a natural working relationship which manages to elicit a few laughs from the dreary material, and their decision to stick quite closely to their established personas occasionally works for the picture. Mitchell's Harry is the neurotic, socially-awkward one, while Webb's Karl is the dopier, more optimistic one, but their performances only take the film so far, and the supporting cast is grievously underwritten. Peter Capaldi, Jessica Stevenson and Steve Edge all have thin, directionless characters to play, and have little chance to make an impact on the viewer.

The worst thing one can say about
Magicians is the fact that it feels like a relic of the 1970's, when the British film industry, such as it was, churned out a series of big-screen spin-offs from popular sitcoms like On the Buses, Rising Damp and Are You Being Served?. But these filmmakers rarely attempted to make anything resembling a real movie in their rush to capitalise on a show's popularity, and Magicians stinks of the same cheapness and carelessness. Mitchell and Webb may yet have something to offer beyond the confines of the television set; but in a year when British cinema has produced the passionate and intelligent This is England, the low-budget thrills of London to Brighton, and the cinematically ambitious Hot Fuzz, such tired and lazily produced garbage as Magicians and Straightheads look like very meagre offerings indeed.