Movies: Belle stands out from usual costumed drama
Reviewed this week are Belle, Heaven is for Real, Of Horses and Men, Oculus and The Young & Prodigious TS Spivet (3D).
Inspired by a 1779 portrait of two young ladies of different skin colours holding hands as equals, Belle stands out from the usual costumed period-drama format by injecting depth into the customary marriage games of the genre via far-reaching political events that would shape English society for the rest of time.
In this case, slavery and Britain’s economic reliance on it is less a backdrop than a wholesale narrative driver, as debutantes size up genuflecting suitors. The titular protagonist (played by the stunning Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy admiral, encapsulates all of the key debates wafting about an absorbing true story — the struggle to abolish an industry that makes commodities of human lives, the place of women in society, and the dichotomy of being too noble to be allowed eat with the staff yet not pure enough of blood to sit with her adopted family at the dinner table.
We see Matthew Goode briefly as the doting biological father who tracks down his daughter at a slave port and brings her home to his uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), then Lord Chief Justice. Corseted up and receiving piano lessons, but feeling the weight of wider racial inequality looming, Belle finds herself falling for Sam Reid’s earnest young abolitionist who’s moral strength is far more attractive than the drippy heir she is being groomed for.
Miranda Richardson and Emily Watson provide fine support, but Wilkinson is the meat in the cast sandwich
Of Horses and Men
It may not be crime-based fiction but there is an unmistakeable Nordic Noir vibe to the drama delivered in Benedikt Erlingsson’s delightfully deranged debut. Think JB Keane meets Father Ted’s My Lovely Horse.
Set in a remote Icelandic valley, the action unfolds through four interwoven vignettes, driven by the relationship this tightly knit community enjoys with the peculiar breed of miniature horses that maintain a mysterious presence in the surrounding countryside.
We’re introduced to local bigwig Kolbein (Ingvar E. Sigurosson) as he prepares his steed for a dramatic ride through the valley.
Tall in the saddle, at least in his own head (it’s a miniature horse, remember), his hubris is rumbled on the return trip when, after a quick pitstop to visit neighbours, his mare refuses to move. The latter has come to the attention of a watching stallion and to Kolbein’s enduring mortification, he is obliged to sit astride his mare as the stallion sets about doing what stallions do. The action unfolds in similar horse-powered vein. An alcoholic procures a wild horse to swim out to a passing trawler in order to obtain an alcohol. It ends badly.
The epic beauty of the backdrop together with the epic eccentricity of the community combines to weave the type of enchanting spell that lingers.
Now showing at the IFI
Heaven is for Real
Well they do say that kids say the funniest things. It certainly proves to be the case in writer/director Randall Wallace’s faith-based drama.
Based on a true story, and starring Greg Kinnear, this thoughtful if flawed piece tells the story of a four-year-old boy who returns from a near-death experience with a tale that beggars belief. Which is no small achievement considering the child’s father, Todd Burpo (Kinnear) is a smalltown Nebraska-based pastor who has made a career out of proselytising for Jesus. After an emergency appendectomy saves his life, the boy, Colton (Connor Corum), regains consciousness, insisting he had travelled to heaven where he met Jesus and a choir of angels.
So far, so far-fetched? After he starts recalling encounters with deceased members of his family, his father’s scepticism starts to waver. Which is when things start to get complicated for this affable preacher.
Ironically resistant to the idea of the miraculous, the board of management at Todd’s church, having threatened dismissal, request he desist from fanning the flames of the media feeding frenzy that has developed over his son’s claims. Cue crisis of conscience scenario, as the cash-poor pastor struggles with the dilemma of putting the demands of his belief system over the demands of his bank manager.
Well-made and well-acted, Heaven is for Real successfully targets what the philosopher Blaise Pascal posited as the “god-shaped hole” in all of us but fails to fill it with anything substantial.
Horror is the genre that offers most surprises in more ways than one. Apart from the inevitable scares required by the horror handbook, in recent years there have been some surprisingly good horrors and Oculus joins their clever, genre-twisting ranks. Writer/director Mike Flanagan expands his short film to tell the story of Kayleigh (Karen Gillan) a young woman who has carefully planned for when her brother, Tim, (Brenton Thwaites) is released from the mental facility in which he has been incarcerated for over a decade.
She has a plan because they made a promise, but this is a promise Tim remembers nothing of. He was placed in the hospital for shooting his father (Rory Cochrane) who had murdered their mother (Katee Sackhoff), a scenario he has spent many years of therapy coming to terms with but it is not the scenario his sister recalls. She blames a nefarious mirror, which she has tracked down and brought for a final showdown.
The story begins near the end and works its way back and forth to tell its own beginning, Flanagan also edited the film. But one of the mirror’s powers is that it can distort reality. In a bid to counteract that, Kayleigh has set up cameras and computers to record and document her family’s truth and clear their name.
Distorted reality is difficult at the best of times, it’s especially difficult in the scene of your childhood trauma, with an evil mirror possibly playing tricks. The film cuts back and forth so that the lines between reality, illusion and delusion are blurred for characters and viewers.
The set-up flails: in 2002 would a 10-year-old have been incarcerated in a mental facility whilst his 12-year-old sister goes untreated? Shutter Island was set in the 1950s for a reason. But the idea is good, especially when pitching psychology against supernatural, the script is not bad at all and the performances are spot on. For a horror film however, it isn’t that scary.
I wished it had a different ending, although not because a different ending would have been better.
The Young & Prodigious T.S. Spivet (3D)
As the hand behind such lush fare as Amelie, A Very Long Engagement and Delicatessen, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s touchstones are well-known by this stage. He may not exactly be prolific (seven features in 22 years), but the much-lauded Gallic director incorporates a
fizzy, ideas-crammed metre to his works, often tightrope-walking between whimsy and profundity and painting the whole canvas in spellbinding hues.
This plumage is clearly visible in …TS Spivet where his powers of inhabitation are fixed on Reif Larsen’s 2009 illustrated novel. The idea of a 12-year-old genius savant embarking on a great journey to collect an award would tickle as energised an imagination as Jeunet’s but there is more to this tale — charming asides, colourfully rendered characters and a high density of visual joys — than that of just an awfully big adventure.
It’s a wonder to let TS (Kyle Catlett) take us through life on the family ranch with his scatty entomologist mother (Helena Bonham Carter), archetypal-cowboy dad and vain sister. When the Smithsonian Institute gets in touch, believing TS to be an old scientist, he plays along and duly agrees to travel to Washington to receive a big honour it wants to bestow upon him. Off he sets, riding the railroad and getting into gentle scrapes along the way (through the make-up, you may spot Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon).
Much of it is ill-disciplined and can dawdle in its own giddy inventiveness, but Jeunet steers everything back around to the nub of the whole tale, namely the little boy hiding beneath the scientific prodigy.
A confection for the heart and eyes, then, and a rare example of what can be achieved when 3D technology finds its way into the hands of a genuine aesthete.
Exclusively at IFI
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