LFF 2019 | Clemency

If not a call to arms, then Clemency, from director Chinonye Chukwu (the first black woman to receive Sundance’s Grand Jury prize), is a call to attention.

Exacting and spartan, this death row drama begins as prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodward) oversees her 11th execution, and ends as she leaves her 12th. What happens in between is the slow unfurling of a tightly coiled woman.

Image result for clemency filmRarely veering from Bernadine’s perspective, it’s as narrow in its focus as the prison corridors it stalks (shot with ingenuity and precision by cinematographer Eric Branco). And this sometimes wears thin. Bernadine is stoic to a fault, unerring in her formality (note how she uses the same refrain to both a death row inmate and his mother as a source of comfort: “We’ll let you know when it’s time.”) and she’s a hard protagonist to penetrate or empathise with, even when the internal crisis between doing her job and doing what’s right begins to bubble over.

Clemency is relentless in its sobriety. Bernadine’s crisp white suits and beige cardigans further reflective of a world without colour, or hope. Both inmates and civilians alike (including her high school teacher husband Jonathan, played by Wendell Pierce, and public defender Marty) seem jaded and dormant. The 12th inmate – Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) – gives a particularly poignant performance as a man whose light has been extinguished long before the state declares it.

Conversations have a tendency to feel a bit rote and lifeless – although a scene with Danielle Brooks (on the other side of the glass) is electrifying for both its writing and performance – and contrivance occasionally rears its head.

Yet Clemency rewards viewers who take note of detail – flinches in movement, the slightest grimace, the jolt of waking up from a bad dream – and Chukwu’s calculations pay off in two potent outbursts. The first, a desperate, self-inflicted, and flinch-inducing act of violence. The second, an emotional reprieve and a jolt from a living nightmare that serves as a welcome gasp of air in a film that keeps you underwater and under its spell for much of the running time.

 

Review: Summer 1993

Out now in UK cinemas.

DIRCarla Simón. StarringLaia Artigas, Paula Robles, Bruna Cusí, David Verdaguer.

Akin to Celine Sciamma’s Tomboy or Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s What Maisie Knew in which a precocious, perhaps conflicted child is experiencing emotions beyond comprehension, Carla Simón’s microscopic directorial debut is a sensitive, delicate and captivating rarity.

An autobiographical slice of life, a summer in 1993 to be exact, fleshed from photographs and memories and feeling, it has the mood and tempo of something deeply personal, alive with a tactility and vibrancy that permeate even the smallest of moments.

Simón’s own childhood experiences are transposed onto Frida (Laia Artigas), a curly-haired 6-year-old we are introduced to in the midst of upheaval. The apartment in Barcelona in which she lives is being packed up and along with her dolls, she is being shipped off to stay with family in the rural outskirts of Catalan. Why?

Frida’s mother recently died from AIDs-related pneumonia, a fact which is never explicitly stated but becomes slowly apparent from the doctor’s visits Frida is required to attend and from the standoffish attitude of a fellow parent when Frida falls and grazes her knee in the playground.

Drama and solemnity exists at the film’s fringes: in fraught adult conversations behind closed windows, or across dinner tables as children play beneath them, but in locating her perspective firmly with Frida, Simón creates something all the more affecting.

Her aunt Marga (Bruna Cusí) and uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer) are young parents with a toddler of their own, who live a seemingly carefree and bohemian existence. But even their easy-going acceptance of Frida can’t paper over the cracks that begin to surface. Frida is acting out, a response that’s to be expected in her circumstances, but for reasons that perhaps she can’t even articulate. What’s more, she’s not used to having a younger ‘sister’. Anna (Paula Robles) already adores her, but Frida is used to having her own way and being the centre of attention and the affection Anna receives from her parents can’t help but highlight the neglect that has hitherto characterised Frida’s upbringing.

Tension emerges from ordinary situations – a lettuce-picking rivalry, a bad hair day, small jealousies, a juvenile prank gone wrong and differences of parenting opinions, but never to the extent that it feels overwrought or melodramatic. This is life lived during adversity. For all the strain, there is still the joy of bathtimes and fireworks and dancing and ice lollies. It’s a summer that seethes with occasional stress, but the presence of a caring and nurturing family equally soothes. Frida is well-loved and the warmth that emanates from watching these relationships deepen is the film’s sustenance.

Meandering and melancholic though it may be, frequently letting moments play out in real time, Simón’s restraint is the film’s beating heart. Histrionics are largely absent, except for one painfully real tantrum that Frida throws after her grandparents visit. Death is clearly on the poor child’s mind as she pesters Marga not to get sick, but mostly the grieving process is glimpsed in Frida’s somewhat devious childhood games and glowering.

The child posturing as adult is always a strange and strangely somber thing to behold. Behaviours absorbed and copied, without realisation of the weight they perhaps carry or the meaning behind them. At one point Frida is lounging in the garden, face daubed with make-up, and proceeds to order Anna around, alternatively selecting thing from a ‘menu’ for her to fetch or complaining about ‘being too tired to play’. These are words no doubt extracted from Frida’s own life, formerly directed at her, and now reissued in poignant playfulness. It is heartbreaking to watch. The insouciance with which they’re uttered completely ignorant to the situation in which they might have first been spoken.

Films that rely on the performances of their child actors are difficult to pull off. How does anyone so young comprehend and then convey such complex emotion? And yet Simón has found, and nurtured, perfection from her two young stars.

Arguably it is beyond performance, they are just playing make-believe, as children are want to, and onto them we impose our interpretations of, and reflections on the film. That’s the world this film exists in, a transcendent space beyond staging or editing or narrative. Cut from the same cloth as Andrea Arnold’s American Honey although distinctly less explosive. Wrought from memory and given meaning by how close to the bone you feel Simón must be cutting.

But Frida is imbued with a prickly tenacity, and wide-eyed vulnerability by Laia Artigas, whilst Paula Robles as the adorable and incredibly capable Anna, is just as spirited and sparkling. Despite the age difference the two of them have a natural chemistry, and their relationship manages to encompass the difficulty of Frida suddenly having to assume responsibility for a younger sibling – a level of maturity she is not prepared for – and Anna’s own acceptance of a new family member, undeniably bringing divided attention with it.

Simón’s writing and direction display a soulful command over her own life, this is a past she has clearly reconciled with. It never feels like a naval-gazing nostalgia trip, but merely a raw meditation on the complexities of illness, loss and family.

On a technical level it effervesces with authenticity, the camera captures the Catalonian countryside in its sun-dappled splendour, while the sound design seems to emphasise outdoor elements – flowing water, thunder, mosquitoes – as if to express the power that external forces wield over us.

And then, there is the final scene. Unexpected and fierce and full of such emotion I found myself mirroring the central character and bursting into hot, spontaneous tears. Watching a child who perhaps doesn’t comprehend the sadness she might later feel, the deep sense of loss that will stay with her until adulthood, until she feels compelled to make a film about that very loss. Only that she cannot quell her sobbing, and after weeks of stoicism, if occasional tantrum-throwing, the grief has bubbled over and into being.

Summer 1993 is wise and wistful, filled with as much warmth as woe and as with Call Me By Your Name or Our Little Sister you just feel glad to live in this cinematic world for an hour or so. Seek it out.

Film Review Round-Up: Oct/Nov Releases

The autumnal season is, historically, a joyous time for film-goers, anteceding awards season as it does and thus bringing with it a crop of critically-acclaimed cinema. And the last fortnight has been particularly fruitful in dishing up some of this year’s most highly anticipated movies.

So here is a round-up of thoughts on what I’ve seen recently.

N.B (Call Me By Your Name is reviewed in full here and has undoubtedly secured a place in my 2017 Top 10).

The Death of Stalin (released Oct 20)

Armando Iannucci, the creative genius behind The Thick Of It, In The Loop, and Veep turns his attention to Moscow in 1953. Stalin has died and his cabinet of excruciatingly incompetent cronies are climbing over themselves to take his proverbial crown. The stellar ensemble of said cronies includes Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor and Michael Palin, and they clearly relish the chance to put on this absurdist pantomime, with gags and awkward moments aplenty. However it’s Jason Isaacs as the army general, Rupert Friend as Stalin’s son and Paddy Considine as a concert-hall attendant who steal the show, and sadly the laughs dry up whenever they’re off-screen.

Breathe (released Oct 27)

A touching tribute to Robin and Diana Cavendish, a British couple who when faced with Robin’s polio diagnosis, decide to liberate themselves from the condition’s constraints. Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy are good, but never surprising, as the loved-up duo inspired to tackle any obstacle that comes their way. Andy Serkis’ direction is expeditious and proficient, if a little paint-by-numbers. And strangely, despite the heart-wrenching goodbyes, soaring music and hues of golden-brown that colour the titles and the Kenyan landscape where the Cavendish’ spent their early years, I was left feeling a little cold.

Take your mother, she will love it.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (released Nov 3)

Yorgos Lanthimos continues to hold the mantle as the most devilishly absurd filmmaker working today. Expectations were high after the critical success of 2015’s The Lobster and here he returns with humour even bleaker and blacker, and satire even more biting. Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman (a duo I didn’t know I needed until Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled) are husband and wife, forced to make an incomparable decision when a strange boy (Barry Keoghan) exacts his revenge. This is perverse and unnerving cinema (the score, particularly, had the latter effect) and will likely rub a lot of people the wrong way. Still, Lanthimos has an impeccable ability to create bizarre, yet somehow believable worlds in which the stakes are never higher and however grotesque, you are gripped. The script, as with The Lobster, is acerbic and unerring, with lines that include “My daughter started menstruating last week” serving as cocktail party chatter, and the performances incredibly fine-tuned. I doubt it will have the same success as The Lobster, if just for it being less accessible, but it should never be said that Lanthimos doesn’t push the boundaries of cinema.

P.s. Don’t take your mother, she will hate it.

Thelma (released Nov 3)

Joachim Trier, whose name you might know after 2015’s Louder Than Bombs (starring Gabriel Byrne, Isabelle Huppert and Jesse Eisenberg), is clearly a connoisseur of cerebral and muted cinema. Thelma sees his return to the Norwegian-language of his origins, and with it comes a more assured sense of place and mood. He breeds and builds a rattling disquiet, as a young woman with supernatural powers begins her first term at university, desperate to fit in, but prohibitively unique. Yet despite all the sinister symbols – snakes, shattered glass, perilous swimming pools – Thelma never manages to make a splash. It’s classy and intriguing cinema, with some tender moments between its two female leads, who embark on a tentative relationship, but I’d really love to see Trier go for it with his next directorial endeavour.

Murder On The Orient Express (released Nov 3)

A lavish reprise of Agatha Christie’s vengeful tale, which sadly, chugs along at a glacial pace and fails to ignite. More of an exercise in exposition than thrilling storytelling, and considering the main draw is its glittering cast, it’s a shame that they’re given little to do but glance around the train suspiciously and spew their backstories when convenient. Still, if you’re looking for grandeur and glamour in your undemanding entertainment, then climb aboard.

The Florida Project (released Nov 10)

Sean Baker, director of ‘the iPhone movie’ Tangerine, returns with a kaleidoscopic, kitschy and blistering tale of fantasy and poverty. 6-year-old Moonee and her barely-functional, if tenacious mother Halley live on society’s fringes, specifically in a colourful motel just outside of Florida’s Disney World, and are barely managing to get by.  In spite of their tough economic circumstances, the film never loses its vibrancy, nor is Moonee’s imagination ever blighted by these realities, and aside from the strikingly, garish set-design and cinematography, this is down to Brooklynn Prince’s rascal of a performance. Moonee and her merry band of mischief-makers are a joy to watch as they amble about the grounds of the motel, cursing, dropping water bombs on tourists, scamming money for ice-cream and generally causing mild mayhem for the motel’s manager (a compassionate Willem Dafoe). As Halley continues down a path of deviance, disenchantment threatens to prevail. But Baker, having explored this world through Moonee’s eyes, allows her innocence to survive for that bit longer.

It’s a world you don’t want to miss.

Ingrid Goes West (released Nov 17)

It’s particularly apt for a film about an Instagram-obsessive (Aubrey Plaza) who moves to Los Angeles to stalk/befriend a social media influencer (Elizabeth Olsen), to be so surface. Writer-director Matt Spicer doesn’t say anything particularly new about the loneliness and hollowness of a life lived online, and the ending feels more neat than authentic. It’s equal parts savage, sad and insightful, if ultimately forgettable. #basic

Coming Soon: Nov 17 – Good Time, Mudbound, Nov 24 – Battle of the Sexes, Beach Rats

Review: Bleed For This

Ben Younger knows how to make a boxing movie.

And in Vinny Pazienza, a loud-mouth Rhode Islander known as ‘The Pazmanian Devil’, Younger has found an ideal subject. Who better to embody the boxing genre’s recurrent theme of ‘overcoming adversity with sheer determination’ than a fighter who returned to the ring – and won a title –  a mere thirteen months after a potentially career, and spine, crippling car accident. It’s the stuff of a screenwriter’s dreams.

But in bringing his story to the screen, Younger fails to inject it with any stylistic ingenuity. He merely slots a round peg into a round hole; signalling Paz’s party-going lifestyle, his managerial issues, introducing a new washed-up trainer who immediately makes the change needed to kickstart Paz’s flailing career, the resulting triumph, the unexpected accident, the naysayers, the baby steps as Paz tries to make his comeback and finally the comeback itself. Etcetera, etcetera.

The tropes and emotional beats are hit with such a consistency, it’s as if Younger is using a punchbag himself. And therein lies the disappointment. Is Bleed For This entertaining cinema? Undoubtedly. Is it a good film? Not especially.

It’s hard to believe that 2014’s Whiplash was the last good Miles Teller film we’ve seen. He’s has 8 dubious credits to his name since then, and Bleed For This barely escapes being the 9th. Teller is far and away the best thing in this film; and given good material he can make a strong showcase for being one of the most charismatic actors of his generation. He brings an intensity, a bravado and a likeability to Vinny that certainly makes him easy to root for. And who’s to argue with the physical transformation? The reveal of his ripped and shredded body, adorned in merely a pair of leopard print panties early on in the film is testament to Teller’s commitment. He might as well be shouting ‘TAKE ME SERIOUSLY’.

If you can tear your eyes away, there’s some ‘worthy-of-mention’ performances happening elsewhere. Predominantly in Aaron Eckhart’s corner, where he plays the boozy, bellied coach Kevin Rooney, newly ditched by none other than Mike Tyson. With this and the recently released Sully, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a sturdier supporting actor than Eckhart. Meanwhile, Ciarán Hinds and Katey Sagal as Paz’s brash, flashy, Catholic parents somewhat overcook the accents and the era.

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There are a couple of moments that eschew affectation and speak to the inventiveness of which Younger is capable. Certainly the shot of Pazienza’s head-on car collision is depicted in a novel and sickeningly real way, whilst the energetic camerawork and evocative production design serve up a believably gritty view of working-class America. And if you come away remembering one thing from the movie it should be Willis Earl Beal’s track ‘Too Dry To Cry’ which injects the narrative with the perfect dose of soul and swagger.

It’s interesting to discover that Pazienza returned to the ring thirteen months after the accident and beat future WBC World Jr. Middleweight Champion Luis Santana via a 10-round decision. However the film chooses to depict his comeback fight as against Robert Duran. Perhaps because in the former he won via unanimous decision, where in this fight Paz won on the line via decision – making for a greater tension-filled finale. And yet strangely, Younger bleeds his film dry of tension. From the get-go his film establishes a tone where you simply expect Paz to pull through and that completely decimates any nerve-shredding, nail-biting impulses we might have. The only time you’ll be on the edge of your seat is when Paz is getting his metal halo removed and chooses to have the screws extracted without general anesthesia.

Bleed For This tries to have its cake and eat it too. By inserting real archival footage of Paz in the ring, it’s trying to convince us of its authenticity – and certainly with Raging Bull’s Martin Scorsese wearing the hat of executive-producer, there’s a whiff of someone that knows how to shoot a fight. But with a good amount creative liability, Younger has created an alphabet soup biopic, bobbing and weaving where he sees fit, but without ever landing a punch.

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The final scene rather serves as an explanation why. Younger’s film bows out not with the ‘we-all-saw-it-coming’ moment of blood-stained, hard-earned, sweat-drenched glory, but with a moment of pensive reflection. Pazienza is being interviewed, and is asked what was the biggest lie he was told. He replies: “It’s not that simple,” – alluding to the naysayers; his doctors, his family, the media, his coaching staff –  that repeatedly told him full recovery was impossible. Paz continues. “Actually, it is that simple.”

And that seems to encapsulates the issue with Younger’s approach. It’s too cut and dry. Too damn obvious. Whilst the story itself is completely true and inspirational, Pazienza’s triumphant rehabilitation makes for a diluted and strangely cautious cinematic subject.

Review: American Honey

I recently watched Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights and was struck by its tactile ferocity. The way almost every touch and glance simmered with raw, vengeful intent. Each shot throbbed with the sense that something urgent and new had to be said. If Arnold’s adaptation of Bronte was distilled to its quintessential themes of pain, anger and love, then American Honey – her fourth feature in ten years –  could just as easily be outlined as such, except with the added inclusion of hope.

Despite the notable use of Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’ (in a hopeless place), against a backdrop of a poverty-stricken America where children appear to roam as free as chickens, Arnold’s vision is never as unflinching or brutal as Precious, Winter’s Bone or other films with young women in destitute situations. Instead it fizzles with an exuberant, and frequently, erotic energy. And so Arnold continues to prove herself a superlative storyteller of narratives of female sexual awakening.

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Our insight into this world comes via the wily yet naive Star, an Oklahoma-dwelling Texan native, played with immense magnetism and mischief by newcomer Sasha Lane. So incandescent is Lane as the impetuous teenager who abandons her downtrodden existence for an uninhibited life on the road, it’s no wonder Arnold spotted her on a beach in Panama City and offered her the part, captivated by her myriad tattoos and free spirit, no doubt sensing that her audience would be too.

In the most economic sequence of the film, Arnold quickly establishes Star’s dead-end day-to-day; scavenging through dumpsters for dinner, hitchhiking for rides with her weary half-siblings in tow and resisting the advances of her leering father.

So when Shia LaBeouf makes eyes at her across the aisles of a Walmart to the soundtrack of an anthemic pop song (a 21st century meet-cute if ever there was one), we have reason to suspect this is the first time Star has reciprocated attraction for her male admirer. And therefore it makes sense in this context that Star might up and leave to join a rat-pack of strays and tearaways who stay in ramshackle motels and flog magazine subscriptions to midwestern Americans.

LaBeouf is Jake; the No.1 sales guy in this motley crew of mag-merchants and the rat-tailed rebel without a cause.  But for all his hubristic flirtation and ‘give-a-shit’ persona, the head honcho of the operation is Krystal – a devil in a metallic bikini – embodied with steely-eyed un-sisterly-ness by Riley Keough (extraordinary in the TV series The Girlfriend Experience). She immediately senses a rival for Jake’s affections and it’s clear from the off that her provision of bed and board for her ‘employees’ doesn’t extend to protection.

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And so as Star’s journey begins with dangers and diversions aplenty, the plot sort of retires, instead favouring a ravishing, sprawling, glistening dream sequence approach, where encounters with cowboys, truckers and bears all merge into a meditative and frequently, explosive experiential soup. Star’s fellow companions are a tangle of limbs and dodgy highlights, who fizzle and fight with a liquored-up frenetic energy, but whom we never find more out about than from what state they came from. Arnold’s focus is unerringly on her increasingly daring heroine, who rejects the tried-and-tested sob story sales technique, in favour of the ‘truth’ and lands herself in more than a handful of hot-water situations.

One of which is the rousing chemistry she and Jake share; illustrated in two of this year’s (or perhaps any year’s) most tender and tangible sex scenes. If they can overcome Jake’s volatile temper and Krystal’s watchful eye, the idea of a future beyond petty crime and alcohol-swilling suddenly seems graspable. It’s a red-blooded, Badlands-esque romance brought to kinetic life by committed, scorching performances from Sasha and Shia.

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Part of the reason this film resonates is because of its loyal focus – to the exclusion of almost all other perspectives – on Star’s story. Female road trip narratives are hard to come by; that sort of transgressive, primitive trajectory was inherently masculinised, a self-made mythology woven into the fabric of the West and at odds with the domesticated experience women were expected to have. Therefore to have been gifted with a film that not only depicts what that might look like, but does so in such an illuminating, coruscating and unending way, must be applauded.

True, the endless repetition of fighting, drinking, partying and pilfering begins to tire as the road stretches forever onwards, but never seems to go anywhere. However, no-one could argue that this isn’t a beautiful and atmospheric journey to go on. Arnold’s recurrent cinematographer Robbie Ryan gives a virtuoso performance, capturing the landscape – at once gritty and ethereal – in a series of sun-dappled, light-speckled, honey-coloured hues. If it’s romanticised, it’s only because it’s filtered through the hazy lens of ecstatic youth.

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The soundtrack and editing likewise do more than pull their weight in anchoring this vision of Americana nirvana. From the kaleidoscopic musical accompaniments, featuring everything from Springsteen and Lady Antebellum to Ludacris and Lil Wayne, to the freewheeling yet often tightly-focused camerawork, each element serves Arnold’s hallucinogenic adventure. Despite the vast terrain and protracted running time, Arnold’s is a searingly intimate picture, reinforced by her favoured use of an Academy aspect ratio.

In that sense, American Honey never tries to be more than a surreal, soulful and subjective depiction of one young woman being catapulted into a world far more unpredictable than she imagined. And for that reason it succeeds – perhaps not on a narrative level, but on an emotional and visual level, it soars.

Review: Manchester by the Sea

Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea, which had its UK premiere at the London Film Festival on Saturday night, is his mere third outing as a director. And his tertiary effort might just be his most mature, melancholic and majestic work yet. A story about a working-class Massachusetts family, to whom fate has not been kind, and the ubiquity of grief, Manchester By the Sea is the kind of subdued, sobering experience that doesn’t lend itself to mainstream attention. But seek it out and you’ll discover something of wrenching power and quiet, arresting beauty.

Casey Affleck, building upon a roster of roles he’s tackled with a tortured intensity, (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Gone Baby Gone) is Lee Chandler, a man whom life has chewed up and spat out and whom when we meet him is barely existing. Alternately abrasive and aloof, Lee is a competent if uncongenial handyman for 4 apartment buildings in Boston. Between the bar where he instigates fights with strangers to the one-bed squat where he falls asleep in front of the TV, beer in hand, there’s a sense of deadening routine which scarcely manages to distract from the deep-seated troubles which appear to plague our protagonist.

On a morning like any other, snow shovel looming mid-air, Lee receives a call that obliges his return to the humble New England hometown he vacated a few years previous. His affable, and well-liked older brother Joe (played by real-life Chandler, Kyle) has died of a cardiac arrest and bestowed guardianship of his 16-year-old son Patrick (a vibrant Lucas Hedges) upon a reluctant Lee. This abrupt, though not altogether unforeseen bereavement, forces Lee to confront a place and a past sheltering an unspeakable tragedy that splintered the community, and continues to reverberate amid these tight-knit people.

Seek it out and you’ll discover something of wrenching power and quiet, arresting beauty.

Lonergan, the eloquent mind and steady hand behind the handsomely-mounted, character-driven dramas You Can Count On Me and Margaret, continues to demonstrate an ear poetically attuned to the nuances of quotidian speech and the inadequacies of it in communicating our emotions. Manchester By the Sea is a richly textured tapestry of awkward moments, strained interactions and everyday encounters, coursing with authenticity and elevated by the electrifying humanism with which they are depicted.

As Lee drags Patrick through the requisite funereal proceedings, their interactions are at once endearing, comedic and searingly sad. Affleck and Hedges possess a chemistry that surpasses some of the most memorable romantic duos, their heated back and forth enlivening the morbid circumstances with pacy, familial rhythms. Both are desperate to get back to their fragile normalities. For Patrick this involves hockey and band practices, dating two girls at the same time and looking after his father’s boat. For Lee, that’s recoiling to his stony, siloed existence in Boston as quickly as arrangements dictate. Both must negotiate the ripples that this event has on their futures.

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As such, this story toes a familiar line, but with a seldom-seen ability to capture a smorgasbord of human emotion. Moments of wrenching poignancy are punctuated with a tart, caustic humour; from a freezer-induced meltdown to a bungled attempt at lovemaking, you’ll find the laughter catches in your throat as tears roll down your cheeks. As Lonergan invokes this melting pot of love, frustration, anguish, hilarity and clumsiness, he deftly eschews cliche and melodrama, instead leaving incisive, elegiac impressions, as his characters amble their way through the mire, clashing and compromising and composing themselves as well as they can.

Casey Affleck is given the lead role he deserves in Lee Chandler, and hits every grief-stricken note with painstaking aplomb.

Lonergan and his director of photography Jody Lee Lipes (who has done phenomenal work on indie movies such a Martha, Marcy, May Marlene and the underrated Bluebird), do a sensational job of capturing the stillness and sameness of the landscape. Lensed with a crisp elegance, the harsh winters and choppy waters are beautifully rendered, giving sense to a place and a people frozen in time. Less effective is the sound design, which sometimes threatens to overpower; especially when the other elements are so subtle and restrained.

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Still, it’s easy to forgive when the film is otherwise utterly engrossing. Lonergan continues to excel at coaxing naturalistic and heart-breaking performances from his actors. Casey Affleck is given the lead role he deserves in Lee Chandler, and hits every grief-stricken note with painstaking aplomb. Lucas Hedges, meanwhile, is a quick-witted and wilful screen presence, nailing the self-centred braggadocio of a popular teenager but with an impressive charm and sensitivity. Kyle Chandler is reliably rugged and paternal as the pillar of the Chandler family – it’s a talented actor who can really make you feel their absence when their death occurs before they’ve even appeared on the screen. Speaking of minimal scenes, Michelle Williams also gives a shattering performance in her all-too-brief role as Lee’s ex-wife Randi; effusing the kind of verisimilitude for which she was praised in Blue Valentine, and which should hopefully garner her supporting actress nominations come awards season.

Manchester By the Sea could be accused of dealing audiences an unsatisfactory ending, but it works in the context of a film that resounds with a muted ache and authenticity. I can’t stop thinking about it – in the way that all films possessed of this much wisdom, warmth and woe – leave you reeling and feeling fortunate to have seen it.

Review: The Childhood of a Leader

What sounds like a dictator’s pre-pubescent biography transmutes into a tapestry of tales copped from the collective childhood’s of the 20th century’s worst enemies. Borrowing its title from Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1939 short story, indie actor Brady Corbet’s (Eden, While We’re Young, Melancholia) directorial debut The Childhood of a Leader is a thoroughly art-house affair that will win critic’s affections, but no doubt alienate mainstream audiences. Still, amid Corbet’s predilection for the melodramatic, there is something distressingly original to be unearthed from a filmmaker who, it seems, is just flexing his muscles.

Robert Pattinson might be gracing the covers of The Times and Vanity Fair alongside Corbet in promotion of their festival-feted tour-de-force, but Edward Cullen devotees be warned, his appearances are scant. The real headliner is Tom Sweet, a girlishly striking young actor plucked from obscurity and burdened with carrying the effectiveness of the film on his bony shoulders. His, after all, is the childhood in question. Born to a German mother (The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo) and an American diplomat father (Game of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham), aiding President Wilson in the rebuilding of post-WW1 society, Prescott is the fruit of a frost-bitten harvest. All too aware of the wandering eyes and language barriers that afflict the already chilly relations between his parents, Prescott has been raised in an environment where callousness and commands take precedence over compassion. Tracing disobedience which builds to deviance and eventually flourishes into full-blown despotism, The Childhood of a Leader plays like a period We Need To Talk About Kevin, which says enough about the kind of mood you need to be in to watch it.

With ferocious singularity, Corbet and his eclectic menagerie of a cast deliver a potent piece of cinema that will linger in your mind.

childhoood-of-a-leader-2015-002-tutorial-two-shotThe film is structured in three acts, each labelled as tantrums and as one might expect, each escalating to have eye-widening ramifications. Boredom, might have something to do with it. Prescott, newly acquainted with his French chateau digs, has yet to make friends and finds reprieve in acting out. Whether it be throwing rocks at Parishioners in the family’s local church or humiliating his French tutor (Nymphomaniac’s Stacy Martin) with a series of calculated moves, Prescott discovers – not childish delight – but cold-hearted content in the chaos he is able to create. Status, appearance and religion are that which the family hold dear, something which Prescott recognises and learns how to unsettle early on. This is a child with an uncanny ability to undermine and override adult authority; revealing it to be fragile and performative.

With discipline failing and attempts at ‘befriending’ their child proving futile, Bejo and Cunningham – both efficiently effective in their roles – alternate between acquiescing entirely to their temper-prone spawn, or discussing providing him with a sibling, as if to erase his presence altogether. Though the triptych arc of Childhood is compelling in it’s setup, you can’t help but feel short-shrifted in terms of context and emotional depth. When Prescott’s third and final tantrum rolls around and a hostile environment – on both a personal and historical level – culminates in a dinner party with grave consequences, the explanations, or lack thereof errs on the frustrating side. For a film that projects anything but subtlety, it’s ironically prudish regarding the reasons behind the child’s maniacal tendencies.

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A delirious and stylistically salient epilogue infers the result of all this bad behaviour, heavily alluding to World War Two and the appearance of a leader whom made his beliefs devastatingly known. Though the interim period might’ve done with a touch more fleshing out. A bizarre twist of sorts – slash – casting choice (best not to IMDb this one before watching) does nothing to alleviate the air of confusion.

All of this being said, with ferocious singularity, Corbet and his eclectic menagerie of a cast, deliver a potent piece of cinema that will linger in your mind. What begins as a simmering study of childhood malevolence ignites to something much weightier and indeed, timely. Despite its languorous pacing, this is a tightly-wound narrative and Corbet’s is a film that never wastes a single moment. Each glance or exchange is significant and frequently informs a later action.

With a strident score and deft camera movement, Childhood persistently places you on the back foot, making you aware that something sinister is brewing but distinctly not in a position to stop it. You can only look on – through splayed fingers, such are the mounting levels of tension – as the tantrums progress and the consequences worsen. There’s a particular moment, about halfway through, where the camera tracks Prescott from behind as he ascends the stairs to his bedroom; the musical orchestrations mounting and gnawing away at your insides. Prescott enters his bedroom, turns around and promptly slams the door in our face. His is not a perspective we are ever given insight into.

Corbet’s is a handsomely-mounted and atmospheric debut; presented with a decided amount of operatic theatricality. Shot by cinematographer Lol Crawley, who most recently worked on 45 Years, the colour palette of Childhood is a bewitching mixture of foreboding darkness and translucent shafts of light; menacing images occasionally punctured by cherubic beauty. The house meanwhile, is adorned with opulent curtains, through which Prescott makes several entrances and Corbet frequently frames his characters in wide shots, as if you are watching them on stage rather than screen. Interestingly for all the wealth and power tied up in this family, the house ripples with cracked walls and peeling paint, as if signifying postwar dilapidation and the fraying familial relationships. This was an era after all when everything appeared to be unravelling at the seams. (Did I use the word timely already?)

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Despite his American background, Corbet’s cast and directorial sensibilities reflect a resume speckled with European influences. Written with his Norwegian partner Mona Fastvold, with whom he also collaborated on The Sleepwalker, a brilliantly unnerving and underrated thriller starring Christopher Abbott, there are semblances of Trier, Haneke, Force Majeure’s Ruben Östlund and Assayas. No doubt absorbed from Corbet’s time spent on their sets. After working for a great many auteurs, it comes as little surprise that with Childhood, Corbet exhibits the makings of a great one.