Monday 16 December 2019

Cinema: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Cert: 15A; Now showing

Frances McDormand is in pole position for the Best Actress Oscar after her performance in Three Billboards...
Frances McDormand is in pole position for the Best Actress Oscar after her performance in Three Billboards...
Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill
Liam Neeson in The Commuter

It just swept the Golden Globes, taking home Best picture (drama), screenplay, actress (drama) for Frances McDormand and supporting actor for Sam Rockwell.

Now we wait to see if Martin McDonagh's latest carries any kind of momentum into the rest of awards season.

While the London-Irish filmmaker's best work of late (after the frankly overrated In Bruges and the fun but untidy Seven Psychopaths), Three Billboards... doesn't have "Oscars glory" written all over it. While punchy and full of giddy flourishes of dialogue, as ever with McDonagh it paints itself into a corner in the closing scenes where a convenient entrance stage-right in the second act is exploited. Nobody reacts in a normal manner to anything.

Luckily, the core trio in the cast are a muscular thing to behold. McDormand is tough as old boot leather as Mildred, a local woman seething in the aftermath of her teenage daughter's murder.

Looking to shake up the useless Ebbing police force that failed to find the killer, she rents out three billboards on the approach to town and has a provocative message pasted across them. Her target is Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) but her actions draw in the wrath of thuggish, white-trash local officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell).

A swirl of side characters animates the nearly two hours of blackly comic, neo-western drama - Caleb Landry Jones as the wimpy ad agent, John Hawkes's nasty ex-husband, a police superior played by The Wire's Clarke Peter.

A superb cast, then, and for the most part McDonagh keeps them moving in interesting patterns. If he tightened up his endings a bit, he'd be unstoppable.

★★★ Hilary A White

Darkest Hour

Cert: PG; Now showing

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill

It was inevitable this biopic depicting a key World War II junction for Winston Churchill would scoop Bafta nominations. With nine in total, Darkest Hour's biggest hope probably lies in the Best Actor category for Gary Oldman's towering (and some might say shamelessly Oscar-baiting) turn as the D-Day prime minister. 

Though it'd be a shame for other categories to go unrewarded. Bruno Delbonnel's musty cinematography leaves the jaw on the floor and the sense of the era created by the set and costume design is tangible. As wife Clementine, Kristin Scott Thomas's supporting role rightly got a Bafta nod, but alas there was none for the ever-reliable Ben Mendelsohn as George VI.

Ultimately, however, it's The Oldman Show. For an actor whose early promise slid into lots of shouting and little subtlety, it's remarkable to see him break the biggest sweat of his career as the croaking cigar-chewer trying to second-guess Hitler and forge ahead following Chamberlain's ousting.

Lily James charms as the new secretary dealing with the man's gruff eccentricity. And director Joe Wright (who also made Atonement) shows the rows and tough calls in the war rooms beforehand.

Everything of course leads towards that speech, a stirring crescendo if ever there was one following ample helpings of tension and dry wit in Anthony McCarten's screenplay. ★★★★ Hilary A White

A Woman's Life

Cert: Club; Now showing in IFI

While we can all count ourselves lucky for the age that we live in, watching Stephane Brize's excellent period portrait of a young French noblewoman also reminds you that some things have been slow to change.

Judith Chemla is incredible as Jeanne, coming of age on her parents' 19th-century Normandy estate and setting forth on life's rough road. This entails a less-than-happy marriage to Swann Arlaud's rakish nobleman, betrayals left, right and centre and a general hardening of Jeanne by some of the toughest lessons life can throw at you.

Brize shoots a naturalist action style in the tight academy frame ratio, bringing an unflinching immediacy to the succession of tragedies. Underpinning the unhappiness are wafting flashbacks to sunnier times.

A Woman's Life could be an oppressive cinema outing if the quality behind and in front of the camera wasn't so magnetic. The tale - based on Guy de Maupassant's 1883 debut novel - meshes the cold realities for women back then with strikingly timeless truths. ★★★★★ Hilary A White

The Commuter

Cert: 15A; Opens on Friday

Liam Neeson in The Commuter

Catalan filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra has made a name as a purveyor of high-action B movies with films like Non Stop and The Shallows. This latest offering sees him return to action and to Liam Neeson for their fourth collaboration. There's a solid cast, plenty of action and slick looks, almost making up for a somewhat confusingly told story.

Michael (Neeson, pictured) and his wife Karen (Elizabeth McGovern) live a nice but busy life making ends meet, but only just - and sending their son to college will be difficult.

Michael commutes by train into NYC to work in insurance, but he is deemed too expensive and fired just years from retirement, something he confides in Alex (Patrick Wilson), his partner from when Michael was a cop.

An insurance salesman with a very particular set of skills then, he is on the train back to suburbia when a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) offers him money to find one particular passenger. There is more to it, naturally, and it becomes a moral issue about right, wrong, consequences and corruption, especially from the perspective of the tormented middle-class.

It can be hard to follow the detail of the story, and it's less humorous than their other films - but fans of Liam whupping baddies will enjoy see him do it on a train.

★★★ Aine O'Connor

Sunday Independent

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