2022 | Weeks 12–13

So, it’s already the 15th — fundamentally halfway through the month — and this is just my ffith post in May. (It would’ve been third, but then my West Side Story and F9 reviews felt like they should have their own posts.) In my mind, I’ve raced this batch out as quickly as possible following my start-of-month posts, but it certainly doesn’t feel very speedy when you look at the dates.

And, talking about messing with time, this roundup begins by taking us all the way back to March: week 12 ended on the 27th of that month. I might’ve posted sooner, were it not that week 12 seemed too small to run by itself. For what it’s worth, week 13 ended on 3rd April, so I’m still over a month behind now.

Anyway, here are the rest of the new films I watched that fortnight…

  • Muriel’s Wedding (1994)
  • Cobra (1986)
  • Django & Django (2021)
  • A Man Escaped (1956), aka Un condamné à mort s’est échappé
  • Death on the Nile (2022)


    Muriel’s Wedding

    (1994)

    P.J. Hogan | 101 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Australia & France / English | 15 / R

    Muriel's Wedding

    This is one of those films I’ve been sort of aware of forever, but never really paid a huge amount of attention, until suddenly I’m watching it almost on a whim. It’s the story of the misadventures of small-town Australian girl Muriel (a breakout performance from Toni Collette), who doesn’t fit with her family or ‘friends’ and so sets off to the big city for a different life.

    I don’t know what I was expecting from the film, exactly — a kooky Aussie romcom, I guess — but not a surprisingly dark, quirky almost to the point of being twisted, black comedy. Not that that’s a bad thing, but it kind of bamboozled me by being a lot odder and more tonally complex than I’d anticipated. I liked it, but it’s a weird one.

    4 out of 5


    Cobra

    (1986)

    George P. Cosmatos | 87 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA & Israel / English | 18 / R

    Cobra

    This is the kind of film I might never have watched were it not for my WDYMYHS challenge. It’s a film I’d heard very little about, and what I had heard wasn’t good, but when it came to selecting the 12 most significant films I hadn’t seen from 1986, it scraped in. I’m glad things like that happen, because while Cobra is far from being a new favourite or something, I did enjoy it.

    Sly Stallone stars as a hot-shot cop on the trail of a serial killer with cult affiliations. That’s about it for the plot. This is a film that’s all style and no substance — though, when you’ve got this much style, maybe that is the substance. It’s so much a stereotypical ’80s macho action fest that it plays like a spoof of itself in places, with over-the-top editing, performances, and one liners that all seem driven by some sense of ‘cool’. I kinda love it for that. Take the car chase at the halfway mark: it’s a ludicrous sequence (one bit barely connects to the next; cars explode when shot; etc), but it’s filmed and cut with style and packed with excitement. It’s epic.

    Remarkably, it’s based on a novel. I say that’s remarkable because novels are devoid of being able to show off flashy visuals or dynamic action sequences, so you think of them as being heavier on things like plot and character — but, as discussed, this has very little plot, and even less character development. The already-brief running time seems to mostly contain music montages and extended action scenes. Reportedly the original cut was around two hours, which was then mercilessly shorn down to the under-90-minute final cut in an attempt to squeeze in more screenings per day. I imagine a lot of what went was the plot, although apparently there was also a lot of graphic violence — and what we’re left with still earnt an 18.

    I guess if a “director’s cut” was going to surface it would’ve done so by now (given all the other films that got them back in the ’00s). It’s something of a shame, because perhaps that version would round out the storyline enough to match the flair that’s all we get from the existing cut. Really, it’s a trashy film, but I rather enjoyed its trashiness. As stated, it’s all style and, at just 87 minutes, all business.

    3 out of 5

    Cobra is the 23rd film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022. It was viewed as part of “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?” 2022.


    Django & Django

    (2021)

    Luca Rea | 77 mins | digital (UHD) | 16:9 | Italy / English, Italian & French | 15

    Django & Django

    The work of the “second-best Spaghetti Western director”, Sergio Corbucci, is analysed by admirer Quentin Tarantino, and supplemented with a handful of anecdotes from a couple of people who worked with him. The small number of interviewees means the film is lacking in the depth you get from having multiple perspectives, but it’s a fine overview of Corbucci’s work nonetheless.

    Indeed, the title — implying a focus on two specific films — is a bit of a misnomer. Not only is it about Corbucci’s career as a whole, with Django just one film among many, but there’s only a single clip from Django Unchained, when QT mentions how Corbucci’s style influenced his choice of Southern setting. That’s it for discussion of Tarantino’s own work — barring a lengthy opening aside into the alternate history of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; a ‘short story’ about Rick Dalton’s time in Italy and his meetings with Corbucci. Tarantino relates these events as if they’re historical fact — the guy really did thoroughly imagine his alternate history!

    3 out of 5

    Django & Django is the 24th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    A Man Escaped

    (1956)

    aka Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut

    Robert Bresson | 101 mins | digital (HD) | 1.33:1 | France / French & German | U

    A Man Escaped

    Most “prisoner of war” movies are about plucky Brits and/or Yanks stuck in jail somewhere behind enemy lines, working out ways to escape almost as a time killer, or at best a matter of honour. A Man Escaped is something different. Based on the memoirs of André Devigny, a member of the French Resistance held in a French prison by the occupying Germans during World War II, and written and directed by Robert Bresson, who was also imprisoned by the Germans as a member of the Resistance, you can’t doubt its pedigree for authenticity. Indeed, Devigny was an adviser on the film, and lent the production the actual ropes and hooks he had used in his escape. More than these points of fact, it’s the film’s overall tone that’s striking — more dour and pessimistic than the usual POW drama, at least as I remember them. Here, the need to escape isn’t a game, it’s literally life or death.

    Bresson certainly knows where he wants his focus to be. The film begins with our hero, Fontaine (François Leterrier), arriving at the prison, although an escape attempt on the way there sees him immediately condemned to solitary confinement. Nonetheless, we remain by his side, never leaving him or his point of view, right until the end, when… well, that would be a spoiler. In terms of background, there’s only what we can pick up along the way; the barest outline of who he is, why he’s there, and what awaits him on the outside. That’s extraneous detail — this is all about his time in prison, his mentality in prison, and how he intends to escape the prison.

    To that end, Bresson spends a lot of time detailing very little. The process by which Fontaine fashions ropes, or chips away at a crack in his door to facilitate a way out, is shown in almost-excruciating detail. It’s all about the prep. When something truly dramatic does happen — like Fontaine gaining a roommate, and the question of whether that man can be trusted — it’s dealt with quickly, confined to a couple of quick scenes. I can only think that’s part of the point: much of the work to escape prison is tedious preparation, but when a spanner gets in the works it has to be dealt with quickly lest it derail the whole enterprise. Such ‘big things’ are a potential threat, but it’s arguably the little things that are even more dangerous. Accidentally drop something noisily, thus alerting the guards to your suspicious activities, and it’s all over.

    As a film, it doesn’t feel as strikingly stylised as the other Bressons I’ve seen, but it definitely has a stripped-back simplicity that’s part of his overall ethos. It’s debatable if we need the semi-monotone voiceover that describes exactly what we can see on screen — I’m no expert, but such an unnecessary and purely cinematic addition seems out of sorts with Bresson’s usual style. That said, at points it adds insight into Fontaine’s thought process, so the narration is not without merit.

    4 out of 5

    A Man Escaped is the 25th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022. It was viewed as part of Blindspot 2022.


    Death on the Nile

    (2022)

    Kenneth Branagh | 127 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA & UK / English & French | 12 / PG-13

    Death on the Nile

    Kenneth Branagh returns as both director and star for another Hercule Poirot mystery, after the somewhat-surprising success of his Murder on the Orient Express — “surprising” in the sense that it did better at the box office than I think anyone expected. It performed less well with critics, but I enjoyed it. Sadly, this followup is not its equal… though that’s not necessarily saying it’s bad.

    For me, it was a film of two halves — although, often as not, those two halves occurred simultaneously. For example: there’s an over-reliance on CGI for the Egyptian vistas makes many scenes look disappointingly fake; but then there’s a fantastic, huge set for the boat where much of the film takes place, and the real-life elements are quite handsomely shot on 65mm. Story-wise, there’s been a lot of rejigging (try to line up the cast with who played the roles in previous adaptations, for example, and you’ll soon discover a lot of the characters are amalgamations), but Christie’s typically excellent plotting survives mostly intact. That said, the ratio of buildup to detective work feels off, with the murder seeming to occur quite late in the film and the subsequent investigation feeling rather rushed.

    The motive behind screenwriter Michael Green’s remixing seems to be a serious attempt to make the film All About Love — not just the motive for the crimes, but all the subplots and whatnot too. I guess they were seeking some kind of justification for why this story is being filmed again, and what makes it worthy of the all-star movie treatment, rather than being just a run-of-the-mill, see-it-every-week-on-TV whodunnit. Plus, there’s a bizarre attempt to provide a backstory for Poirot’s moustache. No, seriously.

    Branagh initially seemed miscast as Poirot, but wasn’t bad in Orient Express, and that continues here. His version of the character is rather likeable, imbuing the Belgian with a neat sense of humour that marks his interpretation out from previous incarnations (Ustinov often played it for laughs too, but with less subtlety). There’s the customary all-star supporting cast, but they’re somewhat wasted, with some big names or talented performers left with too little to do. Though, when about half of them are employing dodgy accents, maybe that’s no bad thing.

    A mixed bag, then. It’s far from my favourite Christie adaptation; although it might actually be my favourite Death on the Nile by default, because I don’t think the previous versions (a Ustinov film and Suchet TV episode) are the best their respective series have to offer either. Whatever — I love this kind of stuff, and I’m glad to hear they’re intending to forge ahead with a third outing.

    3 out of 5

    Death on the Nile is the 26th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


  • Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

    2017 #164
    Kenneth Branagh | 114 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA, UK, Malta, France, Canada & New Zealand / English, French & German | 12A / PG-13

    Murder on the Orient Express

    Did we need another version of Murder on the Orient Express? That seems to be the question that preoccupies many a review of the film, primarily with reference to the Oscar-winning 1974 version directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Albert Finney as Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, alongside an all-star supporting cast. That’s not the only other adaptation of arguably detective fiction’s most famous novel, though there were fewer than I thought: a modernised TV movie starring Alfred Molina was made in 2001, and it was of course filmed as part of the David Suchet Poirot TV series in 2010, but that’s your lot (in English — the Germans and Japanese have both done it on TV). So, on the one hand, maybe we should be all set for screen versions; on the other, it’s not like it’s the only remake.

    So, if you’ve not seen a version before, you’re spoilt for choice. If you want to know which I think you should pick… Well, I’ve not seen it, but I imagine we can discount that 2001 TV movie. Suchet is still the definitive screen interpretation of Poirot, but that particular episode is not the series’ finest hour, as I recall. And while I enjoyed the ’74 version a good deal, I wasn’t bowled over by it. Which brings us to this new one.

    The star of the film: Branagh's moustache

    Personally, I thought it was very good indeed. It’s a film of its genre and heritage — by which I mean it functions the way Christie-style murder mysteries always do, and it’s staged and shot mostly with a classical dignity — so if you have a dislike for that then this isn’t revisionist in a way that will win you over. But within those ‘constraints’ it’s very well done. The photography, in particular, is magnificent. Shot on 65mm, but without showing off about it in the way some other directors have recently, it has a richness, a grandeur, and an elegance that is most befitting.

    Having mentioned the all-star cast of the previous film, it must be said that this version doesn’t skimp in that department either. The key roles are filled with a veritable who’s-who of acting talent, including big names (Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz), quality thesps (Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe), people who’ve worked with Branagh before (many of the small roles), people who tick multiple of those boxes (Dame Judi Dench, Sir Derek Jacobi), and freshly-minted stars too (Star Wars‘ Daisy Ridley, Sing Street‘s Lucy Boynton; depending on your point of view, Beauty and the Beast‘s Josh Gad and Hamilton‘s Leslie Odom Jr as well). The size of the cast and style of the story means that even the most-featured only get a couple of scenes of their own (plus scattered lines in ensemble moments), but the talent involved imbues the roles with inherent character.

    A dangerous liaison?

    And then there’s Branagh himself as Monsieur Poirot. Most discussion of his performance has focused on the moustache, understandably. It’s certainly a magnificent feat. But Branagh is a very fine actor, of course, and he manages to make Poirot his own — an impressive job when there’s the spectre of David Suchet’s definitive performance looming. I wouldn’t say he’s surpassed Suchet in any way, but his take on the character is different enough to dodge too many direct comparisons, while not being so different that it no longer feels like Poirot, at least to me.

    Frankly, I feel like an important element to enjoying the film is to approach it with an openness to it being its own thing — a courtesy I don’t believe it was afforded by some critics and viewers. Many reviews I’ve read had a tendency to compare it to the 1974 film, either in a specific “what I thought of each” sense or a broad “your opinions of that film may colour your view of this one”. I guess that’s a useful metric to some people, but it’s better to judge the film on its own merits, I feel. That said, I’ve also seen some call it too slow, others call it too fast; some say it’s too dull, others say it’s too full of action… No wonder it ended up with middling average scores: never mind not being able to please everyone, it seems like you can’t please anyone. Personally, I thought it largely hit the mark in all those respects.

    Classical elegance

    And it seems like the wider audience agreed: it ended up grossing $350 million worldwide, which places it in the top 30 releases of 2017. For a film of this type in the current box office climate, that’s an excellent achievement. For comparison, it’s just below the likes of Fifty Shades 2, Cars 3, and The Mummy Mk.III, and it also out-grossed films such as The LEGO Batman Movie, Blade Runner 2049, Split, Baby Driver, and even Get Out. I guess it appealed to a different audience than the one that routinely discusses movies online. It also means we’re getting a sequel, with Death on the Nile set for a 2019 release. Do we need another version of that too? Well, why not?

    4 out of 5

    Murder on the Orient Express was released on DVD, Blu-ray, and all the rest, in the UK this week.

    Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

    2016 #69
    Kenneth Branagh | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Russia / English & Russian | 12 / PG-13

    Jack Ryan: Shadow RecruitKenneth Branagh, who once used to direct films based on Shakespeare and opera and that kind of thing, seems to have carved himself a place as a jobbing blockbuster director so far this decade: it started with a spot in Marvel’s then-burgeoning universe, adapting Thor; saw arguably its greatest success with the live-action remake of Disney’s Cinderella; and he’s now working on an adaptation of young adult action-adventure Artemis Fowl — all released by Walt Disney Pictures, incidentally.

    In amongst those, he helmed this: a second attempt (after 2002’s The Sum of All Fears) to relaunch (after a sortoftrilogy in the early ’90s) Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst-cum-spy (the titular Mr Ryan, obviously) as a Bond/Bourne-rivaling action-thriller franchise. It didn’t work. (Next try: make it a TV series for Amazon.) While I can’t pretend to be shedding any tears over the wasted opportunity of not getting another spy franchise, that’s not for lack of enjoyment: demonstrating perhaps even more versatility than with his comic book adaptation (which was kinda Shakespearean, really) or his Disney fairytale (which was a grandiose period drama, really), here Branagh managed to craft a very creditable action-thriller — with emphasis on the latter, an uncommon choice these days. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t catch on.

    Rather than going back to Clancy’s novels, Shadow Recruit chooses to relocate Ryan to the present day, and takes its inspiration from a 2007 Black List screenplay called Dubai. Dubai is, of course, a notoriously pricey Middle Eastern city, and therefore we naturally assume rich in oil. Shadow Recruit’s plot begins with the US refusing to veto a pipeline that will damage Russian oil interests — somehow, I suspect there wasn’t too much re-writing required here. Anyway, following this decision, Afghanistan veteran turned undercover CIA financial analyst Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) uncovers a plot to crash the value of the dollar, which will lead to a new Great Depression. Dispatched to Moscow to investigate, Badass Branaghhe comes up against oligarch Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), the architect of the plan, which will be instigated by a massive terrorist attack on US soil. Unless Ryan can stop him, of course — with the help of his handler (Kevin Costner), and his fiancée Cathy (Keira Knightley), who’s followed him to Russia because she thinks he’s having an affair. I mean, he was sneaking around a lot…

    As I said, the film wasn’t a success, either critically or commercially — despite casting a young, theoretically popular lead in Chris Pine, it didn’t attract the young audience needed to produce blockbuster numbers these days. I guess playing the “thriller” rather than “action” card didn’t pay off, so maybe a TV series is a smarter move after all? I guess we’ll see. Anyway, I think the reaction has been unduly harsh, because Shadow Recruit is very effective at what it sets out to do, and is, in my view, easily the most entertaining Jack Ryan movie since at least the first, The Hunt for Red October. Perhaps that’s damning with faint praise: I was disappointed by both Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger when I finally watched them in 2014, and I described Sum of All Fears as “an adequately entertaining two hours. Otherwise, it’s nothing special.”

    Shadow Recruit probably isn’t anything special either, mind. Branagh manages to mount a few excellent sequences, including a very tense dinner / infiltration combo in the middle of the film, where Cathy has to keep Cherevin occupied while Ryan nips over the road and breaks into the oligarch’s office, which develops into a solid car chase. The dynamic is also Just going for a runa little different to the action-thriller norm. Ryan has skills leftover from his military days, but he’s not a one-man army like Bond or Bourne — he needs help both on the ground and from tech guys behind the scenes, who play a vital role in… well, I was going to say “the climax”, but it’s “the bit just before the climax”. The climax is a chase around New York, because of course you have to end with a chase.

    This was meant to be a defence of Shadow Recruit and I feel like I’m doing a poor job. Thing is, it’s not up to the quality of the much-mentioned Two Bs when they’re at their best, but its relatively plot-and-character-orientated style distinguishes it from those franchises’ regular MOs. Plus Branagh brings a greater cinematic quality than you’ll find in, say, that Spooks movie, meaning Shadow Recruit straddles the divide between TV-level spying and big-screen action in a way that TV spin-off wanted to but couldn’t really manage. Perhaps the character really will work better in a big-budget TV series, then?

    4 out of 5

    Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #64

    A romantic comedy for anyone
    who’s ever been in love.

    Country: UK & USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 111 minutes
    BBFC: PG
    MPAA: PG-13

    Original Release: 26th May 1993 (France)
    UK Release: 27th August 1993
    First Seen: VHS, c.1997

    Stars
    Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Hamlet)
    Emma Thompson (Howards End, Sense and Sensibility)
    Kate Beckinsale (Underworld, Love & Friendship)
    Robert Sean Leonard (Dead Poets Society, House)
    Denzel Washington (Glory, Training Day)
    Keanu Reeves (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, The Matrix)
    Richard Briers (Watership Down, Hamlet)
    Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice, Birdman)

    Director
    Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Thor)

    Screenwriter
    Kenneth Branagh (In the Bleak Midwinter, The Magic Flute)

    Based on
    Much Ado About Nothing, a play by William Shakespeare.

    The Story
    When Don Pedro and his chums visit his friend Leonato at his villa in Sicily, they wind up arranging a marriage between Leonato’s daughter, Hero, and one of Don Pedro’s men, Claudio. To bide time until the nuptials, the happy friends attempt to reconcile argumentative pair Beatrice and Benedick — but Don Pedro’s good-for-nothing half-brother, Don John, plots revenge by ruining Hero’s reputation…

    Our Heroes
    The plot hinges on the romance of Claudio and Hero, and the machinations of Don John to disrupt it, but the central characters are Beatrice and Benedick and the witty verbal sparring that characterises their love-hate relationship.

    Our Villains
    Don John, the bastard. Because he’s an illegitimate son. But also because he tries to ruin someone’s wedding by faking infidelity, which isn’t exactly the nicest way to behave.

    Best Supporting Character
    Don Pedro, a prince who has just quashed an uprising by his duplicitous half-brother (see above), seems to be an inveterate matchmaker, first arranging Claudio’s marriage to Hero, then plotting to see Beatrice and Benedick coupled — despite quietly professing his own feelings for Beatrice.

    Memorable Quote
    “He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man. And he that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him.” — Beatrice

    Memorable Scene
    The plan to dupe Beatrice and Benedick into loving each other in action: in the villa’s gardens, Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio ensure Benedick is eavesdropping while they stage a conversation about how much Beatrice loves him, and Hero and her maid Ursula do the same to Beatrice.

    Letting the Side Down
    I’ve always thought the scenes featuring Michael Keaton and Ben Elton hamming it up are a bit… broad.

    Making of
    The CliffsNotes on the play also cover this film, and notes that “the [opening] scene is cut by more than half, and yet the omissions are seamless to any viewer who has not memorized the lines or is not following the script. Branagh has omitted or cut to the bone several subsequent scenes and their lines, sometimes inserting in their place a visual scene that conveys the incident more dramatically than the words. At other times, he has cut lines and thinned out long speeches to keep the story moving and to eliminate unnecessary details.” Other major cuts are listed at the link.

    Awards
    Nominated for the Palme d’Or
    1 BAFTA nomination (Costume Design)
    1 Razzie nomination (Worst Supporting Actor (Keanu Reeves))

    What the Critics Said
    “Shakespeare’s comedies were always meant for the people […] the subject matter was low: sexual politics, power games, nasty betrayals, romantic deceptions and other quintessentially human activities. […] Maybe these plays were classics of the future, but they were the Benny Hill of their time. With Much Ado About Nothing, Kenneth Branagh has, once again, blown away the forbidding academic dust and found a funny retro-essence for the ’90s.” — Desson Howe, The Washington Post

    Score: 91%

    What the Public Say
    “For those who don’t find Shakespeare’s comedies funny, this is the film to see, because it’s hilarious. It isn’t just the lines that create laughter, but the manner in which they’re set up and delivered. Expressions and actions often play a large part in the comedy, some of which is decidedly physical. These are the kinds of things that don’t appear on the written page. The film also contains its share of drama, and the pathos and poignancy come as easily and naturally as humor. […] I’m not sure if ‘feel good’ has ever been used to describe a picture based on the Bard’s work, but the expression fits.” — James Berardinelli, ReelViews

    Verdict

    There’s a lot of comedy in Shakespeare — not just in his Comedies, but scenes in his Tragedies too (even a pretty dark one like Macbeth sees the story put on pause to indulge in a comedic monologue). The problem is, to modern ears at least, it’s just not funny (that one in Macbeth is commonly cut). So it’s an even greater achievement that writer-director-star Kenneth Branagh here produced a film that was both accessible and genuinely funny. Combining intelligent cuts to the text with assured performances produces a film that, at its best, plays like a period screwball comedy. Consequently, it was that rare thing: a Shakespeare adaptation that became a box office success. That’s something worth making much ado about.

    #65 is… number one. All others are number two, or lower.

    Cinderella (2015)

    2016 #43
    Kenneth Branagh | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | U / PG

    Disney’s animated classic is re-imagined in live-action, losing the songs but expanding the story. The latter serves to find a little more realism in the setup (how Cinders became a servant to her stepmother, etc), as well as in the characters’ motivations and actions.

    Cate Blanchett excels (as ever) as the evil stepmother, and Lily James sells Ella’s perfectness as delightful rather than irritating. It’s kinda odd to see Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden as a clean-cut Prince, though.

    Branagh brings requisite class and gloss for a remake that, while not a classic like the original, is a worthy revisioning.

    4 out of 5

    Conspiracy (2001)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #20

    One meeting. Six million lives.

    Country: UK & USA
    Language: English & German
    Runtime: 96 minutes
    BBFC: 15
    MPAA: R

    Original Release: 19th May 2001 (USA)
    UK Release: 25th January 2002
    First Seen: TV, 25th January 2002

    Stars
    Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Valkyrie)
    Stanley Tucci (The Terminal, The Hunger Games)
    Colin Firth (Bridget Jones’s Diary, The King’s Speech)
    David Threlfall (Scum, Nowhere Boy)
    Kevin McNally (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Valkyrie)

    Director
    Frank Pierson (The Looking Glass War, A Star is Born)

    Screenwriter
    Loring Mandel (Countdown, The Little Drummer Girl)

    The Story
    1942, Berlin: a group of high-ranking Nazis gather for the Wannsee Conference, its purpose being to determine the method by which they will implement Hitler’s policy of making Germany free of Jews. Put another way, this is the meeting that created the Final Solution.

    Our Heroes
    I mean, they’re all Nazis, plotting the Final Solution — heroes are in short supply. That said, some object… just not very many, and not for long.

    Our Villains
    I mean, they’re all Nazis, plotting the Final Solution — there are plenty of villains. Chief amongst them, however, is SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich (Branagh), whose calm and charming demeanour hides a will of steel and a sure belief in their terrible purpose.

    Best Supporting Character
    There’s a strong cast of British character actors (as well as those mentioned above, we have Ian McNeice, Ben Daniels, Brendan Coyle, Owen Teale, Peter Sullivan, Nicholas Woodeson, and Jonathan Coy — you might not know all the names, but you’ll likely know the faces), so it’s hard to name just one stand-out. However, Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart (Colin Firth) is particularly memorable: he’s a nice guy because he only wants to sterilise the Jews. He’s also one of the few men in the room who’s aware of how the rest of the world will judge them if they proceed down a path of extermination.

    Memorable Quote
    Hofmann: “Evacuation to where?”
    Heydrich: “Let us postpone that question for a while.”
    Klopfer: “To hell, one hopes.”
    Lange: “Many already have.”
    Luther: “Do they even have a hell?”
    Heydrich: “They do now. We provide it.”

    Memorable Scene
    Although it’s bookended by arrivals and departures, and occasionally broken up in the middle with pauses for food, etc, the film is essentially one long meeting. Which sounds incredibly dull, but of course isn’t.

    Making of
    Pierson chose to shoot the film’s meeting sequences in long takes, sometimes getting through 20 or more pages at a time. A highly unusual method for a screen production, so the fact most of the cast had a stage background must’ve been a boon. It was shot on Super 16 film for similar reasons: it has longer film magazines and smaller cameras, allowing the cameramen to get closer to the actors.

    Awards
    1 Golden Globe (TV Supporting Actor (Stanley Tucci))
    2 Golden Globe nominations (Best Miniseries or TV Movie, Best Actor in a Miniseries or TV Movie (Kenneth Branagh))
    2 Emmys (Actor in a Miniseries or Movie (Kenneth Branagh), Writing for a Miniseries or Movie)
    8 Emmy nominations (Outstanding TV Movie, Supporting Actor (both Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci), Directing, Cinematography, Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing)
    1 BAFTA TV Award (Single Drama)
    1 BAFTA TV nomination (Actor (Kenneth Branagh))
    Peabody Award

    What the Critics Said
    “What a week for thoroughly exceptional, audaciously gripping fact-based dramas. We had Bloody Sunday on Sunday and now here’s Conspiracy. […] The performances are uniformly outstanding, but out of all of them it will be images of Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich you will take away with you. They may even haunt your nightmares. Branagh, who won an Emmy for the role, is flawless, and in Heydrich this fine actor has re-created a monster. Just watch the iron come into his eyes when he is contradicted or questioned. Watch that smooth charm slip as he calmly threatens those who are not completely on his side.” — Alison Graham, Radio Times

    Score: 100%
    (Sort of.)

    What the Public Say
    “to see the planning of the Final Solution played out is chilling, to say the least. Obviously, it’s not an easy watch, but it’s an important film. If you’re at all interested in how scary and terrible things happen in this world, and how the death of millions can be plotted the same way your company runs a board meeting, this is definitely a movie to see.” — Dan Bergstrom @ Letterboxd

    Verdict

    “A group of men have an administrative meeting” is possibly the least exciting logline for a movie you could ever read, but when those men are Nazis, at the height of the Third Reich’s pomp and opulence, and the businesslike meeting is to plot one of the greatest atrocities ever committed by mankind, it becomes horrendously fascinating. For that we can also thank Loring Mandel’s precise screenplay, and perfectly calibrated performances from a magnificent cast of seasoned actors.

    #21 will be… nothing to do with Phillip Schofield.

    Valkyrie (2008)

    2015 #41
    Bryan Singer | 108 mins* | TV | 16:9 | USA & Germany / English | 12 / PG-13

    On the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s death, the true story of some people who tried to kill him…

    ValkyrieAfter abandoning the X-Men franchise for a Superman reboot/continuation that was retrospectively branded a commercial and critical flop (it actually grossed $391 million worldwide (more than Batman Begins, for example) and has a fairly strong Rotten Tomatoes score of 76%), director Bryan Singer returned to more traditionally dramatic fare — and Nazis — with this true-story war movie about a German plot to assassinate Hitler.

    Tom Cruise is Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, an army officer who believes Hitler needs to be removed for the sake of Germany’s future. Invalided home after an RAF raid, he discovers he’s far from alone in his beliefs when he’s recruited into a conspiratorial group who have already failed to assassinate Hitler several times. There he concocts a plan to take out Hitler with a bomb during his weekly briefing at the Wolf’s Lair, blame it on the SS, and use the Führer’s own Operation Valkyrie contingency plan to seize control before any of his cronies can do it first.

    There’s no point beating about the bush: they don’t succeed. We all know that. The film’s marvel, really, is in making us believe they might. Well, not believe it — we’re not stupid, are we? — but invest in it. It’s also a revelation how far they got. No, Hitler isn’t killed, but the associated confusion engineered by the plan (they cut off communications from the remote Wolf’s Lair, meaning the news that Hitler survived takes a long time to come out) means an awful lot of Valkyrie is enacted. In the end, they’re done for by bad luck — some people make some decisions which undermine the plan, whereas if they’d gone the other way it might have succeeded even with the Fuhrer still alive. What might have been…

    Edge-of-your-seat tensionOne of the stated aims of the conspiracy is to show the rest of the world that not everyone in Germany believed in what Hitler and his inner circle were doing. It may have taken us a long time to realise that, for fairly understandable reasons, but quality films like this help get the message out. Singer has crafted a proper thriller here, replete with scenes of edge-of-your-seat tension. Many a filmmaker can’t manage that with a fictional storyline, never mind one where we know exactly how it turns out.

    A top-drawer cast help keep the drama ticking over too. Complaints that accompanied the theatrical release, about the German characters all speaking English, feel thoroughly bizarre. How many movies in history have foreigners all speaking English? I mean, what about Schindler’s List, for just one broadly-related broadly-recent example. Have we really reached a point where everyone is so accepting of subtitles? No, of course we haven’t. I think it’s a baseless criticism to latch on to; one that misses the point so severely it’s difficult to think how to rationally argue against. It’s just wrong. Anyway, most of the cast are British thesps — Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin McNally, David Schofield, Tom Hollander, even Eddie Izzard — so you’re guaranteed quality. Even Terence Stamp proves that he can act, in spite of what some other performances would have me believe. Cruise is a suitable leading man. This isn’t one of his greater acting performances, Brave men who tried to do the right thingbut nor is he in simplistic action hero mode.

    Elucidating a sometimes-overlooked aspect of an over-covered era of history, managing to tell its story with all the thrills and tension of a narrative where we don’t know the outcome, Valkyrie is a film to be commended. It’s also a fitting tribute to very brave men on the ‘other side’ who tried to do the right thing.

    4 out of 5

    * I always try to list the running time of the version I watched, but I feel this one needs a quick explanation, because it’s a full 13 minutes less than the listed running time. Was it cut? Probably not. I watched it on TV, with PAL speed-up and end credits almost entirely shorn. PAL gets you down to 115 minutes; I can well believe there were seven minutes more to the full credits. So there you go. ^

    Hamlet (1996)

    2008 #50
    Kenneth Branagh | 232 mins | DVD | PG / PG-13

    Hamlet (1996)Following his success with Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, Kenneth Branagh tackled arguably Shakespeare’s most revered play, Hamlet. And he didn’t do it by half. It’s the first ever full-text screen adaptation, which means it clocks in just shy of four hours; he unusually shot it on 70mm film, which means it looks gorgeous; and, while he grabbed the title role himself, he assembled around him a ludicrously star-packed cast from both sides of the pond — in alphabetical order, there’s Richard Attenborough, Brian Blessed, Richard Briers, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Judi Dench, Gerard Depardieu, Nicholas Farrell, John Gielgud, Rosemary Harris, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, John Mills, Jimi Mistry, Rufus Sewell, Timothy Spall, Don Warrington, Robin Williams and Kate Winslet — not to mention several other recognisable faces. Even Ken Dodd’s in there!

    But, with impressive statistics and name-dropping put to one side, what of the film itself? Well, it’s a bit of a slog, especially for someone unfamiliar with the text. While there is much to keep the viewer engaged, the high level of attention required can make it a little wearing; certainly, I took the intermission as a chance to split the film over two nights. Amusingly, the second half uses the original text to provide a sort of “Previously on Hamlet“, which was very useful 24 hours later. None of this is the fault of Branagh or his cast, who do their utmost to make the text legible for newbies — for example, there are cutaways to events that are described but not shown by Shakespeare, which, among other things, help establish who Fortinbras is (Rufus Sewell, as it turns out) before he finally turns up later on.

    That said, some of the performances are a bit mixed. Branagh is a good director and not a bad actor, but his Shakespearean performances are variations on a theme rather than fully delineated characters. While there a new facets on display here thanks to the complexity of the character, there are also many elements that are eerily reminiscent of his Henry V and Benedick. The Americans among the cast seem to be on best behaviour and generally cope surprisingly well, while Julie Christie achieves an above average amount of fully legible dialogue. Perhaps the biggest casting surprise is Judi Dench, appearing in what is barely a cameo — one wonders if the film-career-boosting effects of a certain spy franchise would have changed that.

    The best thing about this version, however, is how it looks. Much credit to cinematographer Alex Thomson for using the larger 70mm format to its full, loading every frame with vibrant colours and packing detail into even the quietest moments. Not every frame is a work of art — there is, after all, a story to be told — but there’s more than enough eye candy to go round. Also, a nod to the editing (the work of Neil Farrell), which makes good use of long takes — many of them full of camera moves — but also sharply edited sequences, such as the all-important play. The fast cuts make for a joyously tense scene in a way only cinema can provide, which I suppose is rather ironic during a ‘play within a play’.

    For fans of Shakespeare, I suspect Branagh’s Hamlet is a wonderful experience, finally bringing the complete text to the screen and executing it all so well. For us mere mortals, it’s a beautifully shot and engagingly performed film, that I’m sure would benefit from a greater understanding of the text.

    4 out of 5