Experiencing a bout of middle-class ennui, caused by a loveless, childless marriage to her stony British, viola playing husband Leonard (Iddo Goldberg), Kate Bosworth’s Jane is begging to be jolted out of her misery. What better setting for her spiritual and sexual rebirth than the island of Ischia, a historic and exotic Italian town, where the scenery is as pretty as the boy who promises adventure.
That boy is Caleb (the effervescently charming Jamie Blackley), a 19-year-old American who lures Jane with his youthful impetuousness and memory of Italian poetry. Like a gender-swap manic-pixie-dream-girl, his gallivanting around the world with few possessions and even less agenda gives Jane just the thrill she needs to recognise – and perhaps do something about – the infuriating idle of her dreary marriage.
The two relationships are contrasted by fairly run-of-the-mill means. Jane and Leonard’s interactions are punctuated by stilted conversations and awkward silences, where vast spaces and turned backs depict just how incompatible they are. Their surroundings in each other’s company are lit with a cold sterility, compared to the sunshine and openness Jane encounters on her strolls around the island. Jane and Caleb, meanwhile, frolic in the sea and amongst Italian ruins, a series of flirtatious and sensuous wanderings that are captured predominantly in montage format.
At times, the narrative can be a little bit flimsy. From the moment Jane and Leonard partake in routine and unsatisfactory sex and she touches her stomach with a sense of loss and yearning, we can forecast where this might be heading. However, the delicacy and clarity with which Kat Coiro (writer and director) treats the female perspective is something to be admired. Our empathy and indeed most of the screen time is devoted to Jane, who is caught between her past and her future. This conflict has been treated with more depth and less whimsy in the past, but Bosworth’s performance and the refreshing sea breeze suffused throughout the film make for a charismatic watch. What’s more, there is real pathos and honesty in the unravelling of both relationships – neither is realistic, but both serve their purpose.
Photographed with a veneer of timeworn nostalgia (accentuated by Coiro’s homage to Rossellini), and comprising of a great many Kodak moments, there are times when this delicate portrayal of a disintegrating marriage borders on the generic. True, there’s not much substance to this stylish depiction of the liberating effect of the Amalfi coast, but even so, the romantic, evocative cinematography and glistening locations are enough to induce sympathy for Jane’s being swept up by it all.
Verdict: Beyond a simple premise and predictable denouement, lies a tender and aesthetically-stunning tale of self-discovery. Sepia-drenched and a little bit drippy, this is also wistful, enchanting and frivolous cinema.
Ageing in Hollywood is a double-edged sword. Either you embrace the graceful climb over the hill and vie with Meryl Streep for all the peachy roles coming your way. Or you try and stay looking as youthful as possible for as long as possible, because let’s face it, there are more roles for those lithe, glowing-skinned, and eternally energised monsters known as ‘young women’ than there are for their predecessors (and most likely, trail-brazers). And if you do beat one of those taut beauties to the part, then you have Russell Crowe breathing down your neck saying that ageism isn’t a problem at all and you should just embrace the whole getting older shebang. Sigh.
MIC wrote a very accurate and incisive piece on the issue with his comments, which initially appears as though he’s encouraging (more like demanding that) female actresses to be happy in their own skin. And rather than selling themselves short by competing with all the up and comers of the film industry, they should focus on playing women their own age.
Oh Russell. How funny you are. All those intelligent, wise and elegant elder ladies of Hollywood must have bypassed the reams and reams of intelligent, wise and elegant roles written for them, in search of bit parts as muses, girlfriends, manic-pixie-dream-girls, supporting wives and leggy prostitutes. Oh wait.
He appears to have glossed over, and trivialised the issue at hand – the fact that roles suited to older women in Hollywood are few and far between. According to a 2013 study, It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: Onscreen Representations of Female Characters in the Top 100 Films of 2013, researcher Martha Lauzen found that:
“Females comprised 15% of protagonists, 29% of major characters and 30% of all speaking characters. Female characters remain younger than their male counterparts,” Lauzen writes. “The majority of female characters were in their 20s (26%) and 30s (28%). The majority of male characters were in their 30s (27%) and 40s (31%).”
The hard fact to face is that it’s easier for men to sustain careers in Hollywood simply because there are more roles for them. Whereas their trajectory into fame might remain pretty consistent, or even soar as they age, for women it’s more likely to decline (unless you’re Amy Adams). Paul Rudd, at the age of 45 is playing the hero in Marvel’s latest outing Ant-Man. Whereas the only superhero roles currently available to women are being assumed by the significantly younger Scarlett Johansson. For guys over 40 like Crowe, 55% of all male characters on screen are for guys who are his age or older. Flip the side of the coin, or undergo a sex change operation (and besides making headlines) he would discover the number of roles available to him decreases dramatically.
His comments also do a disservice to the fantastic actresses that do live in their own skin, and consistently turn in performances that celebrate the process of the ageing, and the complexities that come with it. Generalising actresses that are only in the market for youthful roles, neglects the fact that are many talented thesps besides Streep that showcase their capabilities, neuroses and wrinkles – and are all the more fantastic for doing so. Here are a handful of my favourite characters/role over 40 played by terrific, multi-faceted actresses over 40 in the past few years. From ball-busting bosses and gun-toting assassins, to pill-popping anti heroines and everything in between, these women are fierce, vulnerable, sharp-tongued, witty, acerbic, badass, and most of all, show strength in the face of adversity. They are role models not just for women their age, but for a younger generation of women and actresses who demand longevity out of their careers.
‘M’ – Judi Dench (Skyfall, Casino Royale, Die Another Day, The World Is Not Enough)
Meryl Streep (Doubt, Mamma Mia, The Devil Wears Prada, The Iron Lady, It’s Complicated)
‘Nic’ – Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right)
‘Dr. Alice Howland’ – Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
‘Ryan Stone’ – Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
‘Penny Chenery’ – Diane Lane (Secretariat)
‘Kate’ – Catherine Keener (Please Give)
Helen Mirren (Gosford Park, The Queen, The Tempest, RED, Hitchcock)
In Cold Blood, the novel penned by the captivating Truman Capote, and the subject of Bennett Miller’s directorial debut Capote, is a title that could just as easily apply to his third feature Foxcatcher. As we bear witness to a power struggle between three men, something menacing and elegiac weighs heavy in the wintry air, as if Miller is mourning a bye-gone America.
Heir to the titular Foxcatcher Farms, John E (Eleuthère or ‘Eagle’) du Pont of the excessively wealthy ‘du Pont family’ shuffles about with an air of awkwardness, entitlement and cold-blooded detachment. There is something distinctly reptilian, and thoroughly disturbing about Steve Carell’s breathy and stilted portrayal of the eccentric billionaire and his manipulative involvement in the US Olympic wrestling team. And whether or not you come to the cinema informed of the real story – though it’s perhaps best enjoyed without a trip to Wikipedia (especially considering the historical timeline has been edited and condensed) – an atmosphere of foreboding and slow-burning devastation will threaten to suffocate.
That the Schultz brothers; Dave and Mark – Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum respectively, have already won their Olympic Gold Medals for wrestling in Los Angeles 1984 tells you a little about where the story is heading. Triumph has been sampled, and the colour palette and mood of the story indicates that the aftertaste will be one of bitterness and sorrow. Mark has descended into a hollow, if brutish, shell of a man reduced to staring at his medals and hoping to relive his former glory. Dave, on the other hand, is settled with his wife (Sienna Miller) and kids in Colorado and like a gentle-giant seems the more emotionally stable and amiable of the two.
It comes as little surprise then, that Mark Schultz is so easily lured to du Pont’s Foxcatcher farms, in search of reassurance, validation and self-belief. Alongside the hefty pay-cheque, he is seduced by du Pont’s sprawling, if meaningless, meditation on patriotism, hope and victory. What masquerades as the ultimate American Dream, quickly descends into an American nightmare. Moved onto the farm, Mark finds himself under the volatile scrutiny of du Pont, himself failing to live up to the expectations of Foxcatcher’s steely, wheelchair bound matriarch (the ever regal Vanessa Redgrave). The landscape itself is isolated, perpetually covered in mist and somewhat akin to a haunted house, certainly not giving off a welcoming vibe.
And though Du Pont’s sponsorship proves initially successfully – under a training regime started by Dave’s guidance – with Mark winning the 1985 World Championships, their relationship soon unravels into something tempestuous, uncomfortable and physically destructive. A corruptor and leech, disguised as a mentor, du Pont gradually changes from a supportive father figure, to a manipulative stain on Mark’s history. Subsequently, Mark too makes the tragic decline from champion to cocaine-snorting rent-boy (their relationship has contentious homoerotic undertones).
John du Pont is marked by physical weakness and mental instability, a man that has bought his way into the inner circles of sporting society and certainly doesn’t belong there. There are moments he appears little more than a spoiled brat, stomping his feet and firing his pistol anytime he doesn’t get his own way. Indeed, when Dave Schultz initially refuses his six-figure offer to join the farm, he looks utterly bewildered by the concept. Carell is unrecognisably sinister in the role and will no doubt pick up an Oscar nomination for this career U-turn.
Like a strange combination of Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter, du Pont’s lurking in the shadows and mind-game trickery makes for an unpredictable and maniacal villain; a ticking time bomb that could explode at any time.
Tatum and Ruffalo, however, are never overshadowed or intimidated by Carell’s indefatigable performance, bringing dynamism and nuance to the fold. Tatum is hulking and sullen, bristling with skittish machismo and pent-up anger – there’s even something a little bull terrier about him; robust, muscular and not as handsome as we’re used to. He relies on the steadying hand and wise logic of his older brother, whilst simultaneously desperate to escape his shadow. In an early sparring practice together, Mark inflicts a bloodied nose on Dave, perhaps not altogether unintentional, but with calm determination it is Dave who achieves the final athletic blow. Ruffalo gives the kind of measured, empathetic and assured performance we have come to expect of him, and considering the climax of the story it feels a shame we don’t spend more screen-time in his presence.
The narrative attempts to evenly distribute time between this oddball trio, and only marginally succeeds at doing so. Dave is the supportive pillar upon which his younger brother depends, brought in to join the Foxcatcher training program when Mark spirals out of physical shape. But it is Mark and John who form the ultimate focus of the story. They are the two in need of salvation and whose struggle is most outwardly depicted. As tensions rise to insurmountable heights, Dave is caught in the crossfire between the man hell-bent on control and the brother trapped in his grasp. It makes for a gripping, if uneven story.
Penned by E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman, all the plot points required for a taut psychological thriller are present, but any emotional investment in the story is missing. We never spend enough time with each character or excavate past their surfaces to form a meaningful connection. Mark is angry, John is mad, and Dave is normal, and whilst their head-butting, body-slamming ménage a trois spells out compelling – if dour – viewing, I never felt the loss or tragedy that is at the heart of the story.
Perhaps this is a result of Miller’s hushed, restrained direction. The action occurs in the midst of distilled, almost torturously silent scenes of repression and rage. Miller has snapshots of brilliance, as the characters are forced to confront themselves and their demons – particularly a scene where Mark reacts badly to a wrestling loss in a hotel room or John releases a stream of horses onto his property. These are scenes potent with achingly poignant symbolism, and Miller proves deft at saying more in that which is left unsaid. Yet there is also something so oppressively bleak and ambiguous about the direction, that even the wrestling scenes provide little release. Ambiguity is perhaps the only way to explore a story as muddled and murky as this, nevertheless, the emotional damage of the characters and density of the plot can weigh heavy on the audience, to the extent, that whilst it’s an admirable cinematic feat, it’s certainly not an enjoyable one.
Shot by cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Let Me In) in a subdued, wintry colour palette, Foxcatcher simmers with disappointment and disillusionment. Ultimately, the state-of-the-art training facility proves to be a prison for all three of its characters, and the sport that bred their success also inspires their undoing. Instead of ‘giving America hope’, John du Pont exacts a crime which only creates despair.
Verdict: A chilling parable of unchecked ambition and moral corruption. With three virtuoso performances at its core, and under Bennett Miller’s steady guidance, this is a mesmerising and haunting awards contender.