The Power of the Dog
Selected cinemas; Cert 12A
We recently sent them packing from the Aviva Stadium with their tails between their legs, but New Zealand is about to claw back some national pride. The Power of the Dog, the eighth film in Jane Campion’s three-decade career, is being talked about as a frontrunner in the Oscars race.
If it lands her a Best Director nod, as many assume it will, she will be only the second woman (after Kathryn Bigelow) in history to do so twice.
The first time was 1993’s The Piano, a multiple Oscar-winner that established Campion as a leading light of cinema. The intervening years have seen her struggle to match the sumptuous sweep of that film, but she approaches it here with another period drama that attains a register all of its own. The Power of the Dog begins as one thing and stealthily morphs into something else under your nose.
Its sleight of hand is so beguiling that you assume you have it all worked out, only for it to make you question much of what you have seen. The twist is less a sudden knife in the back than an acidic taste rising from the pit of your stomach in the final act.
Despite the elusive dark energies of the story – adapted by Campion herself from a 1967 Thomas Savage novel – it is never macabre for the sake of it. Layers are shed by complex characters as it deals with themes – toxic masculinity, homophobia, trauma – that we still grapple with a century on from its setting.
At the vortex is Benedict Cumberbatch. He and Jesse Plemons are Burbank brothers Phil and George. Co-owners of a prosperous Montana cattle ranch, they could not be more different.
While George is well-mannered, presentable and rounded-off, Phil is the embodiment of devil-may-care. George manages the books and housekeeping, Phil barks at his team of cowboys and castrates bulls barehanded.
When the pair and their outfit are dining at a hostelry run by Rose (Kirsten Dunst), Phil loudly preys on her effeminate teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is waiting tables. Seeking to make amends for his brother’s boorish behaviour, George returns to console Rose and a relationship forms.
Phil’s resentment of his brother taking up with this “suicide widow” ratchets up a gear when they are wed, and suddenly Rose and Peter are brought home to the siblings’ large ranch house on the prairie.
Vindictive and petty, Phil does his best to turn the screw on the fragile Rose. His initial rejection of Peter comes down to the lad being academic, shy and the complete antithesis of the concept of frontier manliness Phil inherited from his late mentor, Bronco Henry.
Things begin shifting underfoot. As Campion widens the frame to draw in the peaks and ranges of the Otago region of New Zealand where it was filmed, The Power of the Dog manages to take on a feeling of claustrophobia.
It is in the interior of these characters that this is achieved and that is a remarkable thing. But for the mention of 1925, the sight of an automobile, and flecks of post-war abandon, we might wonder was this Western located half a century earlier rather than the other side of the continent to Gatsby’s parties.
Presented to us as arch antagonist, Phil emerges as the interlocking element in the saga. A complex chemical makeup is revealed with creeping momentum by Campion, who specifically asked Cumberbatch to remain in character throughout filming.
Expect the star to loom large in Best Actor shortlists: his performance is powerhouse stuff, as calloused and prismatic as Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood.
Dunst and Plemons, a couple in real life, might also find themselves in the Oscars mix, as should Radiohead man Jonny Greenwood for his latest incredible film score in what is turning out to be a singular oeuvre.
Ari Wegner, a director of photography on Lady Macbeth and Zola, is yet another talking point for her manipulations of texture and light on what is at times an expansive canvas.
You notice that music once again becomes a stage within a stage here; it is a thread of detail on a tapestry that can only be fully comprehended in the dying seconds.
These small touches are often where this film drums loudest, and this is down to Campion’s orchestration, executed here with masterful composure.
In cinemas now; Cert 12A
It must be difficult to take over a beloved franchise. It must be doubly difficult to do so when the original director is your father. Almost 40 years since Ivan Reitman’s iconic Ghostbusters, his son Jason directs a sequel. It is flawed, but tweens should enjoy it.
From the outset, Afterlife studiously distances itself from the Incel-inciting, female-led 2016 Ghostbusters reboot. Instead it repeatedly references the events of the 1984 film and connects to it through family.
Callie (Carrie Coon) inherits a spooky old house and takes her reluctant teens, Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) to live in it.
They meet up with seismologist Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd), who has come to study the unexplained earthquakes in the region.
Surprise, surprise, tectonic plates are not the issue. However, fortunately Phoebe has inherited the sensibilities, and equipment, of her grandfather, original Ghostbuster Egon Spengler.
The first part of the film, led by the kids and child-like Gary, is the most successful. It works less well when it becomes an homage/imitation of the original film. However, younger audiences will enjoy it a lot. Áine O’Connor
In cinemas now; Cert PG
French film-making genius Céline Sciamma has done it again. Her great skill in evoking emotion is taken to a new level, because in Petite Maman, she makes the audience complicit.
Eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) has just lost her beloved maternal grandmother. Clearing out her childhood home proves too much for Nelly’s mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), who disappears, leaving Nelly and her father (Stéphane Varupenne) in the house.
Nelly then meets eight-year old Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) and understands quickly she is her mother as a child. The girls have questions for each other, but mostly their time is about togetherness and healing.
At some point, all offspring realise their parents were children once too, and this heralds a new phase in the relationship. And, while the journey between Nelly and Marion happens on screen, each viewer is also automatically transported to their own formative family relationships. It’s fascinating.
The film is short but complete. It feels like a fable and the Sanz twins, who play Nelly and Marion, are fabulous. Áine O’Connor
In selected cinemas, Cert 12A
There is nothing more common in the world than talent that goes unrecognised. That is one of the takeaways from this tactile portrait of 1990s Dublin cult band Interference and their iconic frontman Fergus O’Farrell.
Diagnosed with muscular dystrophy as a boy in West Cork, O’Farrell’s physical limitations were offset by a white-hot stage charisma wedded to an intense songwriting instinct that drew comparisons with Jeff Buckley.
Ten years in the making – only to have its release delayed a year by the pandemic – Michael McCormack’s IFTA and Galway Fleadh winner tells of the band’s rise, how that ascent was stymied by O’Farrell’s worsening condition, and their enduring legacy.
Parallel to this, we are at home in Cork with O’Farrell, wheelchair-bound and needing care, as he records music with help from Glen Hansard and The Frames.
This is the secret history of a lost hero in the annals of Irish rock. Besides revealing to us the hype the band generated in their day, it is also a study in the need to create, and how nothing, not even a terminal medical condition, can quell the artistic gene. Hilary White