Mr. Holmes (2015)

2015 #165
Bill Condon | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK & USA / English | PG / PG

Once-great detective Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) has retired to the countryside with his housekeeper (Laura Linney), her son Roger (Milo Parker), and his bees, but an unsolved case from late in his career troubles his dementia-addled mind. As he tries to remember the events, we also learn the significance of a trip he recently made to Japan, and the benefits of his growing friendship with Roger.

The story is slight and the pace sedate, the latter seemingly to stretch the former to feature length. I’m not saying it needs the quick-cut whizziness of Sherlock or the Downey Jr movies — doubly so as this is a movie about an older, slower Holmes — but there are times when it could do with a bit of a kick up the backside. It doesn’t help that Bill Condon’s direction goes for stately “prestige picture”, making this feel like a movie that could’ve been made at any point in the last 30 years. Again, I’m not calling for more bombast, but a little more flair wouldn’t have gone amiss.

There are strong thematic threads, though, about loss, loneliness, and the strength and importance of fiction. This is barely a mystery movie, and certainly not a thriller; it’s a character drama that happens to be about a detective and his last unsolved (or, rather, unremembered) case. Nonetheless, it didn’t need to be so ponderous about it. As such, the film is all about McKellen’s dual performance, playing Holmes both in his 60s and at 93, when he’s struggling with memory loss and slowly dying in retirement. The difference between the two versions is striking, achieved with minimal make-up but instead primarily via two very different types of physicality. It’s a showcase for the actor, as well as being a grand interpretation of the Great Detective.

Alongside him, the lad, Milo Parker, is very good, managing to holding his own against the knight of the realm. Also excellent is Hattie Morahan, playing the object of the case in Holmes’ flashbacks. She’s probably best known for playing embattled fellow parent Jane in Outnumbered, but she first garnered attention as one of the leads in the 2008 Sense & Sensibility miniseries and has done mostly dramatic work since, too. This is a relatively small part, but a high quality performance. Conversely, nominal co-lead Laura Linney is woefully miscast as the middle-aged housekeeper, struggling with an accent so poor I wouldn’t even like to attempt to guess where it’s meant to hail from. Otherwise, there are an array of recognisable faces (Roger Allam, Frances de la Tour, Francis Barber, Phil Davis, John Sessions) playing blink-and-you’ll-miss it roles that are beneath almost all of them.

There is much to commend Mr. Holmes, not least McKellen’s performance, but by the end I found myself feeling disappointed. Perhaps I’d invested too much expectation — it’s a great actor playing one of my favourite characters, after all — and it will improve on a future viewing. For now, I felt it could’ve been more.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

The Fifth Estate (2013)

2015 #144
Bill Condon | 128 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & Belgium / English | 15 / R

It’s The Julian Assange Movie, in which Benedict Cumberbatch dons a lanky white wig and an Australian accent to portray one of the most significant figures of our times, whether you like it or not.

The story is told from the perspective of Daniel Berg, played by Daniel Brühl, who first encounters Assange in Germany and is somewhat captivated by him. Daniel helps Assange to really launch WikiLeaks, and is by his side through their early fame-garnering exposés. He functions a little as Assange’s moral compass, too, especially when they receive some stolen US military files relating to their controversial Middle Eastern exploits…

Cumberbatch’s performance is the showstopper here, and it’s been justly praised. It can seem a little over the top and affected, but then people who actually knew Assange say it’s bang on, so I think we have to take it that’s what he’s like rather than it being Cumberbatch overplaying. I largely rate him as an actor anyway, so he earns the benefit of the doubt. Brühl excels in the less showy role, however — much like he did in Rush, in fact, though even that role had its share of affectations to work with, which this part does not.

Daniel is torn between ‘saving the world’ and a love interest, played by Alicia Vikander, who is everywhere right now but I think this is the first time I’ve actually seen her in something. There’s nothing remarkable about her part, so I can’t really judge her. The same goes for the rest of the cast, where a wide array of starry and/or acclaimed names (Peter Capaldi, Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie, Alexander Siddig, Dan Stevens, David Thewlis, Stanley Tucci, Carice van Houten (who’s big in Belgium, it would seem)) don’t falter, but nonetheless struggle to make a mark when none are awarded anything meaty to do.

The rest of the film is unfortunately hit or miss. It begins with an absolutely fantastic two-and-a-half-minute title sequence that covers the whole history of human mass communication, from hieroglyphs to the internet and everything in between. It’s succinct, thorough, and excellent, probably the best thing about the entire movie. Elsewise, Bill Condon’s direction is a little rote. At times he seems to want to be clever and cutting edge, with on-screen tech and the visual representation of WikiLeak’s virtual office space, but it’s inconsistent, a grab-bag of tricks without a guiding principle. The rest of the movie is shot plainly. Not badly, just plainly; normally; almost old-fashioned-ly. Its directorial style doesn’t match the material. For contrast, look to David Fincher’s The Social Network, which also told the story of cutting-edge ever-so-now tech developments, but did so with filmmaking that could be described in similar terms.

Every once in a while the film interjects a US-set subplot that seems to go nowhere. The posters and trailers imply these American officials were people hunting Assange; instead, they’re relatively minor cogs in the political wheel who get caught out by what he does. They don’t seem to have any particular significance in themselves — they’re not famous, nor more wronged than anyone else — so maybe they’re just meant to be emblematic? As in, Laura Linney’s character is there to be representative of Assange’s effect, not the only person it happened to. Or was she the only person fired, and that’s the point? The film doesn’t make it clear.

In terms of understanding, it’s also very much a movie of Now. It assumes you know an awful lot of real-world context — essentially, the history of the last decade or two. Before too long, it’ll be a tough film for new viewers to follow or engage with without some kind of degree. Not everything should be made with an eye to its longevity, but one wonders how successful The Fifth Estate is in and of itself. It’s almost fiction-filmmaking as journalism: it’s about something that just happened — in some respects, is still happening — rather than an attempt to look back and explain those happenings in a historical context.

Indeed, one wonders how enlightening the film is in any respect. Assange is clearly a difficult person to get to know, by turns crusading hero and egotistical wannabe. That’s how the film depicts him, and if that’s accurate to life, well, that’s not the film’s fault — what’s wrong with having a primary character who isn’t a hero? Anyway, that’s the role Daniel is there to fulfil — he’s the honourable one; the one who’s actually invested in the site’s supposed values. But then the film is partly based on his book, so he would be the good guy.

In the end, this is an immensely complex story, with many different and contradictory sides to tell, and the film isn’t up to the task of covering them all. Great performances, though.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Hyde Park on Hudson (2012)

2015 #148
Roger Michell | 90 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12 / R

Wannabe-prestige picture Hyde Park on Hudson is like two films playing at once: the dramatic/romantic story of President FDR’s (Bill Murray) burgeoning affair with his distant cousin Daisy (Laura Linney), and the comedy-drama of his meeting with King George VI (aka “the one Colin Firth played in The King’s Speech”; here, Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth 1.5 (Olivia Colman) in the build up to World War 2, at a time when America really didn’t want to get involved.

This internal battle between the two plots — and, consequently, the ways in which the film was promoted — seems to have caused some confusion with viewers. The trailer (or the British one, at least) sold it as being about the UK/US culture clash, a four-hander in which the British monarchs met FDR and… some woman. See how the British poster is a three shot of Murray, West and Colman, while the American one makes it all about Murray with Linney behind him (and they retained those images for the DVD and Blu-ray releases, too). Understandably, therefore, British viewers seem to expect a film about the UK/US meeting, and are surprised to find the visit is a poorly-integrated subplot to a tale of FDR’s philandering, while US viewers seem to expect a film about FDR having an affair with his cousin, and are surprised by how much time is spent on a poorly-integrated subplot about a British state visit.

For what it’s worth, the film was born of the discovery of Daisy’s letters and diaries, which told of the relationship. Apparently the screenwriter was one of the people who found these, so I guess that’s where his interest lies. The film is a UK production from Film4, however, and made in the wake of the global success of The King’s Speech, so perhaps that explains the root of the royal involvement. While both stories have some potential, they aren’t made to gel, switching back and forth as if in some kind of narrative relay that enables the film to run a theatrical distance.

The screenplay doesn’t help the cast, either. West and Colman are quality actors, but they’re not given good enough material to work with — they’re little more than the funny-Brits comic relief. Their performances seem pitched as a cheap Sunday afternoon TV movie, and are further hamstrung by the inevitable comparison to Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter’s award-winning portrayals of the same people just a couple of years earlier. With the material they’re given, West and Colman never stood a chance of matching that standard.

Elsewhere, Murray gives a good performance, though equally he’s never afforded a scene to really dig into his character, to display some of his inner life. Linney is landed with an over-explanatory voice over, and a character who’s three steps behind the viewer.

Roger Michell’s direction is adequate if unremarkable. DoP Lol Crawley provides a few spots of nice cinematography during any scene set in daylight, with vibrant colours evoking a place of sunny happiness, but anything set at night is graded with a terribly extreme, not to mention awfully rote, case of teal-and-orange.

While not strictly speaking a good film, Hyde Park on Hudson is passable as a Sunday-afternoon-style period drama (albeit one with an occasional risqué edge). One wonders if it could’ve been something more, somehow.

3 out of 5