Friday 24 May 2019

Jordan's thriller good but not Greta

Motherhood and madness are fatally intertwined in Irish director’s nightmarish chiller, says Paul Whitington

Chloe Grace-Moretz in Greta
Chloe Grace-Moretz in Greta
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

While the recent successes of directors like Lenny Abrahamson 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.

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There's plenty of Freudian goings-on in Greta, which stars Chloe Grace-Moretz as young New York waitress Frances McCullen, whose good heart leads her into all sorts of trouble. Frances 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 cosy home of Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert), an exceedingly French piano teacher, who 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 Frances' presence. But it later emerges that the daughter committed suicide, and when Frances 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 Frances works, making a scene and overacting. But Frances' attempts to free herself from her crazy stalker will land her in even more trouble.

Chloe Grace-Moretz is stalked by Isabelle Huppert (right) in Greta
Chloe Grace-Moretz is stalked by Isabelle Huppert (right) in Greta

Huppert is an extraordinarily powerful actress who has come of late to specialise in playing crazies 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. That's 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. 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 at some point or another, and does, playing a world-weary Irish detective whom Frances' friend Erica (Maika Monroe) hires to find out what the hell is going on. Monroe brings a salty dose of 21st century crass materialism to a film that is in every other way curiously - and charmingly - old fashioned.

It feels 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. Grace-Moretz gives us a protagonist with soul and Huppert throws the kitchen sink at her portrayal of a gloriously unhinged witch woman.

The Critics: Your guide to movies, music and more...

Loro (18, 151mins)

Italy might be going down the plug hole, but it at least has a master film-maker as national biographer. In Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino and Toni Servillo dramatised the ropey career of Guilio Andreotti and, in Loro, they take on Silvio Berlusconi. It's 2006 and while a recently deposed Berlusconi kicks his heels at his Sardinian villa, a chancer from Puglia (Riccardo Scamarcio) uses an army of women to attract his attention. Berlusconi may be the architect of Italy's current woes, but Servillo's sublime performance reminds us how charming he was, a master salesman selling nothing. Loro is messy, excessive, but often spellbinding.

Dragged Across Concrete (18, 158mins)

S. Craig Zahler is a talented film-maker with a puzzling love of extreme violence. In Dragged Across Concrete, Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughan play Ridgeman and Lurasetti, two 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 bad neighbourhood. Out of loyalty, Lurasetti helps him, but meanwhile, a vicious gang are planning a bank job. Zahler's film is gripping in a gloomy sort of way, but predictably obsessed with nihilistic pain and suffering.

Red Joan (15A, 101mins)

Trevor Nunn's frumpy drama is based on a gripping true story he manages to render lifeless. Pensioner Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) is pottering in her garden when the police screech up and arrest her. She's accused of being a Soviet spy, and we then find out how young Joan (Sophie Cookson) was befriended by two glamorous communists (Tom Hughes, Tereza Srbova) while at Cambridge in the 1930s. They're spies, and when Joan is recruited by a secret nuclear weapon programme, she becomes a very useful source. The film flips back and forth in time to no great effect, and the cast swim gamely against a rising tide of tedium.

Films coming soon...

Avengers: Endgame (Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Brie Larson); Eighth Grade (Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson); The Dig (Moe Dunford, Lorcan Cranitch, Emily Taaffe); Ash Is Purest White (Zhao Tao).

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