Monday 11 December 2017

A franchise failed before it's even begun

* Gods of Egypt (12A, 127mins), 1 Star
* Tale of Tales (15A, 133mins), 4 Stars
* Cemetery of Splendour (No Cert, IFI, 122mins), 4 Stars

Gerard Butler in 'Gods of Egypt'.
Gerard Butler in 'Gods of Egypt'.

Paul Whitington

In another life, Gerard Butler might have worked on a Glasgow shipyard and spent his free time battling Rangers fans. Instead, he chose acting, and has done pretty well out of it. And good luck to him, but the burly Scot's limitations as an actor are legion, and he's struggled to move beyond the swords and sandals epics that made him famous in the first place. He's tried romcoms (Mr Butler will never be mistaken for Cary Grant), comedies (his touch is heavy-handed), thrillers and even family movies, but has always returned to the genre with which he's most comfortable.

He should be right at home in Gods of Egypt, a bizarre and grandiose quasi-historical epic. By the banks of the Nile, gods and men have enjoyed a fairly cosy cohabitation under the benign rule of the god king Osiris (Bryan Brown). He has decided to abdicate in favour of his son Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) when the coronation is rudely interrupted by Osiris's brother Set (Gerard Butler).

Set has decided the kingdom should be his, kills Osiris, blinds Horus and settles down in the royal palace. His rule will not be benign, and only a resourceful human thief called Bek (Brenton Thwaites) will stand any chance of stopping him.

Gods of Egypt was originally intended to be the start of a new action franchise, but was savaged in the US, prompting director Alex Proyas to dismiss all film critics as "diseased vultures pecking at the bones of a dying carcass".

Not to be pedantic, but a carcass by definition is already dead, as one assumes so is this franchise. Mr Proyas' film is appallingly written, nasty to look at and incoherent in the extreme. And some of the other performances are so bad that the bold Mr Butler seems almost Olivier-like by comparison.

Roman director Matteo Garrone is best known for his hard-hitting 2008 gangster drama 'Gomorra', but Tale of Tales is a very different beast. It's loosely based on the work of Giambattista Basile, a 17th-century poet who collected old peasant fairytales. Tale of Tales builds a series of stories around the fate of a childless queen, played by Salma Hayek. When a mysterious stranger comes to her court to offer her a chance of conceiving, his plan works but comes at a terrible price.

Meanwhile, in another kingdom, a lustful monarch (Vincent Cassel) becomes besotted with the exquisite singing voice of a peasant woman he assumes is a beauty. And in a third kingdom, an errant king (Toby Jones, superb as always) loses sight of his daughter's needs when he becomes distracted by his ever-expanding pet flea. There are other stories, but all revolve around an obsession with sex and reproduction, and an overriding fear of death. It's fabulously photographed, darkly surreal.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul is the kind of film-maker who sorts the men from the boys. His sometimes challenging work blends sly commentaries on contemporary Thai society with an abiding interest in the spirit world.

I loved his 2010 Palme d'Or winner 'Uncle Boonmee', and Cemetery of Splendour is every bit as good. A group of soldiers digging a building site foundation fall prey to a mysterious sleeping sickness that leaves them hovering between life and death.

When a woman called Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) volunteers to help care for them, she discovers that the men's ailment may relate to the fact that the site was once a royal burial ground.

Mr Weerasethakul likes to use non-actors and films naturalistically, with loose framing, all of which makes his otherworldly themes seem actual, and real.

Cemetery of Splendour is a strange, haunting, beautiful film, which uses its mysterious story to contrast Thailand's violent history with the tranquil equanimity of traditional Buddhist beliefs.

Irish Independent

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