Sunday 21 April 2019

Film of the week: What They Had

Cert: 15A; Selected cinemas

Taissa Farmiga, Hilary Swank and Robert Forster in 'What They Had'
Taissa Farmiga, Hilary Swank and Robert Forster in 'What They Had'

Bar a couple of exceptions, this awards season has been particularly tedious, with the Oscars themselves proving once and for all that they are now about celebrating everything other than merit. It does mean, however, that we can now get back to good cinema that doesn't come ready-packaged with an awards-baiting strategy.

Exhibit A is this muscular, sharply observed family drama from first-timer Elizabeth Chomko. Alzheimer's is always a harrowing subject - we have yet to recover from Still Alice - but what makes this feature (written and directed by Chomko) so canny is the attention it pays to the loved ones the illness leaves in its wake.

Bridget (Hilary Swank) travels back to Chicago from sunny California after mother Ruth (Blythe Danner) shuffles out into an inhospitable winter's eve. Her gruff, chain-smoking brother Nicky (Michael Shannon) is urging Bridget and their father Norbert (Robert Forster) to put Ruth in a home.

Norbert is not only unconvinced, he is vehemently opposed to the idea and what it would imply about the demise of their long, happy and, vitally, committed marriage.

Pushing and pulling, the kind only families are capable of inflicting, ensues as Bridget is also forced to look at what order her own house is in. Central to this is daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) who has travelled with her.

The three-way excellence of Forster, Swank and Shannon is the throbbing, tumultuous heart of Chomko's debut. Top-notch dialogue, earthy characterisation, a rich score (by Danny Mulhern) and an authentic angle on a weighty theme do the rest. Who needs fake teeth and Lady Gaga? ★★★★ Hilary A White


The Hole in the Ground

Cert: 15A; Now showing

Horror is arguably the most fashion forward film genre. Other genres change a bit over time but only horror has swung from the extremes of Vincent Price high camp via slasher horror to Blair Witch Project found footage faux realism. But always the most enduring and effective ones tend to tap into your own fears. Lee Cronin's debut feature uses both traditional horror elements and personal fear, but what raises it up is a wonderful performance from Seana Kerslake.

Sarah (Kerslake) is a mother looking for an escape/fresh start with her young son Chris (James Quinn Markey) and clearly the best place to do this in a horror film is in a creepy, old house beside an even creepier old forest in rural Ireland. When Chris disappears one night Sarah goes searching for him and discovers an enormous sinkhole in the forest. She gets her boy back but starts to suspect that something has changed and her growing fear and suspicion of her own small child conflicts with her love and concern that she is imagining things.

Horror icon Kati Outinen plays a creepy crone, there are references to The Sixth Sense and The Shining among other genre classics so the boxes are ticked and the suspicion that a loved one, especially a child, is not what they should be is a true horror. It's not groundbreaking and will appeal to horror fans mostly, but Kerslake, and the excellent Quinn Markey, give it a dramatic centre. ★★★★ Aine O'Connor


The Aftermath

Cert: 15A; Now showing

Based on Rhidian Brook's novel, reconstruction is the overarching theme of James Kent's second feature to deal with wartime romance (after 2014's Testament of Youth).

Rubble-strewn 1946 Hamburg is the setting for emotionally scarred lovers seeking solace and stability, much like the world outside their door.

Keira Knightley is Rachael Morgan. She arrives to join her British colonel husband Lewis (Jason Clarke) who is trying to keep order while helping society get back on its feet. Much to her chagrin, she and Lewis are sharing a stately abode on the outskirts of the city with the house's previous owner and now groundsman, Stefan (Alexander Skarsgard). His wife lost in the allied force's bombing raids and his teenage daughter acting up, Stefan must now prove that he was not a supporter of Hitler, a tricky task with the embers of Nazidom still warm.

Rachael, we discover, is also at sea following the death of their son.

A mutual resentment and mistrust quickly (incredulously so) turns to passion as the lonely and impossibly beautiful pair get hot and bothered with one another.

More problematic is the inert chemistry between Knightley and Skarsgard, the latter particularly lacking the requisite vulnerability given what his character has supposedly been through. This romance is the axis on which the story turns, and no amount of lush cinematography and score can paper over its shortcomings. ★★ Hilary A White


Fighting With  My Family

Cert: 15A; Now showing

Bevis siblings Paige (Florence Pugh) and Zak (Jack Lowden) have been raised for a life of exhibition wrestling by their obsessive parents (Lena Headey and Nick Frost). Their local shows are put on hold however when the WWE stages auditions. A chance at the big time has arrived, but like all such tales, a toll may be taken on the things that matter most.

There's very little else you need to know about this true-life saga other than it features Dwayne Johnson (producing and cameoing). In fact, it was the muscular US star who came to writer-director Stephen Merchant (The Office, Extras) after seeing a documentary about the Bevis family.

Like a body-slamming Full Monty or The Simpsons in leotards, this jewel finds a rare balance between the silliness of the "sport" (and the characters it attracts), a feel-good underdog yarn and some big-hearted sentiment. A particularly British adolescence (Iron Maiden, black T-shirts, bad hair, etc) provides a tone and feel that are the icing on the cake. ★★★★ Hilary A White

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