Greta review: 'A giddy, entirely incredible concoction, though none the less entertaining for that'
While the recent successes of directors like Lenny Abrahamson, John Carney and John Crowley have been justly praised, it ought not be forgotten that Neil Jordan remains the most successful Irish filmmaker ever, his achievements all the more remarkable given the era in which he operated.
Jordan became a major international player at a time when this country had no film industry to speak of, writing and directing projects often startlingly original, and moving with ease between mainstream pictures and more personal pieces. His films are multi-layered, never dull, and even his genre pictures have hidden psychological depths.
There is plenty of Freudian s*** going on in Greta, which stars Chloe Grace-Moretz as a young New York waitress whose good heart leads her into all sorts of trouble. Frances McMullen is coming home from work one night when she finds a fancy handbag sitting alone and forlorn on a subway seat. Any self-respecting New Yorker would either call the cops or have a peek inside to see if there was anything worth stealing, but Frankie, an out-of-towner with a conscience, finds an address and decides to return it to its owner.
She goes to Brooklyn and finds the small but cozy home of Greta Hedwig (Isabelle Huppert), an exceedingly French piano teacher, who seems delighted to have been reunited with her bag and invites Frankie inside. Greta seems charming, and knocks out wistful snatches of Liszt on the piano before rustling up cakes and tea. Frankie, who’s still dealing with the recent death of her mother, is drawn to the cultured older woman: they begin meeting for coffee, and chats.
Which is all very well until Frankie notices a worrying intensity creeping into the older woman’s conversation. Greta’s widowed, and says her grown-up daughter is away studying in Paris - she fields a phone call from her in Franny’s presence. But it later emerges that the daughter died by suicide, and when Franny opens a drawer at Greta’s home one evening and finds a dozen identical handbags, she finally realises that she’s dealing with a fruit bat.
She severs all ties and pretends to go abroad but Greta’s having none of it. She starts phoning 50 times a day and turning up like Banquo’s ghost at the ritzy restaurant where Frankie works, making a scene and overacting. But Frankie’s attempts to free herself from her crazy stalker will land her in even more trouble.
Isabelle Huppert is an extraordinarily powerful actress who has come of late to specialise in playing bananas of this type. And while she does chew the furniture at times here, her larger-than-life performance seems appropriate to both character and film. Because poor Greta is an absolute loon, an unhinged sadist doomed to endlessly replay some fantasy of herself as a doting mother. She’s practically none of the things she claims to be, and may not even be French, but approaches the role of monster mama with total conviction, luring kind young women into her web with those sad-looking handbags before psychologically torturing them, and even making them learn the piano!
There’s no call for that kind of cruelty, and in truth Greta is a giddy, entirely incredible concoction, though none the less entertaining for that. Mr. Jordan, one feels, is having a bit of fun here, throwing about the Hitchcock tropes and daring us to take at face value a film that ought not be taken seriously at all.
This being a Neil Jordan movie, Stephen Rea is bound to turn up and some point or another and does, playing a world-weary Irish detective whom Frankie’s friend Erika hires to find out what the F is going on. Maika Monroe is Erika, and brings a salty dose of 21st century crass materialism to film that is in every other way curiously - and charmingly - old-fashioned. It feels to me like one of those terrifically entertaining low-budget macabre thrillers the old studios used to knock out in slow weeks - The Woman in the Window, that kind of thing.
It’s whimsical, unconvincing in its attempts at nastiness, but playful and fun in the way that films hardly ever are any more. It’s also nice to look at, and wonderfully acted for the most part. Chloe Grace-Moretz gives us a protagonist with soul, and Ms. Huppert throws the kitchen sink at her portrayal of a gloriously unhinged witch woman.
Also releasing this week:
Dragged Across Concrete
(18, 158mins) ***
S. Craig Zahler is a talented and adept filmmaking storyteller with a puzzling love of extreme violence. In Dragged Across Concrete, Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughan play Ridgeman and Lurasetti, two veteran police detectives in the tough fictitious city of Bulwark.
When Ridgeman is suspended for over-zealously ‘interviewing’ a suspect, he dreams up a scheme to pull off a heist that will rescue his wife and daughter from life in a violent neighbourhood.
Lurasetti will reluctantly help him, but meanwhile a spectacularly nasty gang are planning a bank job. Full of atmosphere and slightly overwritten, Mr. Zahler’s film is gripping in a gloomy sort of way though predictably obsessed with nihilistic pain and suffering.
(18, 151mins) ***
Italy may be going down the plug hole politically and economically, but at least has a master filmmaker as self-appointed national biographer. In Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino and actor Toni Servillo dramatised the ropey career of three-time prime minister Guilio Andreotti, and in Loro they take on Silvio Berlusconi.
It’s 2006, and while a recently deposed Berlusconi kicks his heels at his lavish home in Sardinia, a chancer from Puglia (Riccardo Scamarcio) uses a gang of glamorous women to attract his attention.
Berlusconi may be the architect of his country’s current woes, but Toni Servillo’s sublime performance reminds us how charming he was, a master salesman selling nothing.
Loro is messy, unfocussed, excessive, but often spellbinding.
(15A, 101mins) **
Trevor Nunn’s frumpy period drama is loosely based on a remarkable true story he manages to render lifeless, and dull. Pensioner Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) is tending the hedges in her suburban front garden when the police screech up and arrest her.
She’s accused of being a Soviet spy, and during lengthy flashbacks we find out how young Joan (Sophie Cookson) was befriended by two glamorous young communists (Tom Hughes, Tereza Srbova) while at Cambridge in the late 1930s.
They’re spies, and when Joan is recruited by the British government’s secret nuclear weapon program, she becomes a very useful source. The film flaps back and forth in time to no great effect, and the cast swim gamely against a rising tide of tedium.