The Levelling (Hope Dickson Leach, 2017)

Ellie Kendrick may be familiar to most as Meera Reed in Game of Thrones, but she has been extremely busy outside of Westeros with a series of challenging roles on stage and off. Her latest appearance, this time as the star of drama feature The Levelling, sees her take on the complex character of Clover, a British girl who returns to her farmhouse home after the unexpected death of her brother Harry (Joe Blakemore).

The tone of the film is inevitably dark and the setting is as grim as it is claustrophobic. The whole film plays out entirely within the confines of the farm, as Clover is forced to come to terms with what has happened whilst also dealing with a tattered relationship with her father Aubrey (David Troughton), a man who is either unable or unwilling to open up emotionally and would rather just carry on as if nothing has happened.

You may be forgiven for a reluctance in diving head-first into this film. When the main star is also a bit character in one of the biggest television series of all time, there is a nagging thought that she may have been cast solely to appeal to fans of Game of Thrones. Certainly the cynic in me can’t get past the fact that the timing of the release has been chosen to cash in on it; it is a matter of weeks before it enters its seventh season.

To presume this would be wholly wrong. Kendrick delivers an absolutely phenomenal performance, swaying between headstong frustration to childlike confusion. It’s a great showcase of her talents and a great piece of evidence that there will be life in her career beyond the final season of Game of Thrones next year.

Writer / director Hope Dickson Leach does well with the location of the film to let the audience know that this is a place that is almost uninhabitable. There’s no respite from the damp, grimness of the untended farmhouse and its surrounding land. The fact that she has achieved so much in her debut feature should be enough for the industry to take note. There’s a lot of talent here.

The subject matter may not appeal to some and may be too challenging for others, but this is definitely an emotional journey worth going on.

Film review – Mindhorn (Sean Foley, 2017)

Julian Barrett and Simon Farnaby have come together to create a brilliantly British comedy in Mindhorn, with the pair co-writing and co-starring in a story about a washed up actor who can’t let go of his former glories.

Barrett takes the role of Richard Thorncroft, who is better known as the titular TV detective Mindhorn. Twenty-five years after his show was axed, disgraced Thorncroft is desperately in need of a fresh angle to kick start his career. The love of his life and former co-star Patricia Deville (Essie Davis) has now married Clive Parnevik (Farnaby), who was previously a stunt double for Mindhorn. When a police investigation into a probable murderer called Paul Melly (Russell Tovey) takes a bizarre turn, Thorncroft is brought on board to help talk to the man and discover the real truth.

The jokes come thick and fast, though many could be easily missed for those not tuned into this style of comedy. Plenty of the beats come from Alan Partridge and it does feel like a variation on the script for Alpha Papa. This isn’t a bad thing at all. Incidentally, Steve Coogan appears as a rival and former co-Star of Thorncroft named Pete Eastman.

The story is quirky, but comedies live and die on the amount of laughs they deliver. In this sense, Mindhorn soars. From the nuanced references to 1980s British television, to cringeworthy moments largely shared between Barrett and Farnaby, it is hilarious from start to finish.

Foreign markets are yet to experience the brilliance of the film. If I’m honest, I’m not sure how it will land. The humour is distinctly British, whatever that means. Mind you, it’s more accessible than the likes of Monty Python and The Mighty Boosh, which all enjoyed global audiences, so hopefully I am wrong on that front.

This isn’t the kind of film that rises to the top of the charts on its first week of release. Instead, I’m predicting it will follow the path of Anchorman and Hot Rod to become a comedy sleeper hit that people will talk about in a few years’ time.

Do yourself a favour and get in on the act now. You can’t handcuff the wind.

Film review – Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017)

I have to lay out some home truths before we start. After five years, it appears the dust has settled and most of us have decided Prometheus was a pile of rubbish.

The Alien prequel was a return to the helm for Ridley Scott after a 33-year hiatus. Despite the anticipation, the disappointment amongst the hard-core fans stemmed from some convenient plot points that seemed to allow progression of the story despite not really making sense (“Why did she run in a straight line?”, “Why did the navigator guy get lost?”, “She’s just had a caesarean… how is she running?”).

I saw the film as a midnight screening and I remember coming out of the cinema buzzing with excitement. The film was, in my opinion, a return to form for the franchise after the overwhelmingly disappointing Alien v Predator films (which worked better as a toy line than as a film). It wasn’t a patch on the first two – Alien and its sequel Aliens – but probably stood alongside or better than any of the other instalments.

Yes, that’s right. I am a fan of Prometheus.

I went into an early screening of Covenant with the same kind of excitement and anticipation as I had five years ago. The advertising campaign has been nothing if not relentless, so finally getting to see the film on the big screen felt as much a trip to the cinema as it was a way to quench my carefully manipulated thirst for a next instalment.

The film is set in 2104, ten years after the main events of Prometheus and around twenty years before the events of Alien. The opening sequence, which features a reprisal cameo from Guy Pearce as Peter Weyland, explores the themes of humanity’s desire to meet its creator. It could easily have been a part of the first instalment, but bridges the gap and reminds viewers of the unhinged nature of David, one of two robots played by Michael Fassbender.

The main body of the film focuses on a colonisation mission from Earth to to a remote planet Origae-6, aboard the titular spaceship Covenant. The main crew includes Captain Branson (James Franco) and third in command Daniels (Katherine Waterston), a terraforming expert and wife to Branson. Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) is a man of faith who is unexpectedly promoted to captain shortly into the mission. Michael Fassbender’s second character in the film is a synthetic android named Walter, a more advanced version of David. The crew also includes Chief Pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), Sergeant Lope (Demián Bichir) and Karine Oram (Carmen Ejogo). Aboard their ship is around 2,000 human embryos, with the purpose of populating their destination planet upon arrival.

After a neutrino shockwave hits the ship, the main crew are woken up to deal with the repairs on the ship. They are seven years away from their destination planet but a matter of weeks away from an alternative planet that appears to offer the same prospects as Origae-6. New captain Oram makes the decision to land on the newly-found planet, which turns out to be the one Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and David set sail for at the end of Prometheus. Needless to say, the story goes downhill from here for our crew, with disastrous consequences.

Given the popular misgivings about Prometheus, I couldn’t help but pick fault with a couple of major issues with the decision making of the crew of the Covenant. Most glaringly, none of them seem keen to wear masks when they leave the spaceship, even though there’s no obvious investigations into how viable to atmosphere is to breathe. It just seemed odd that they were so confident only minutes after being so worried. Surely that’s rule number one for space travel?

All the people on the ship have a partner on there, meaning everyone is at risk of losing a loved one at every turn. This falls down, however, when you throw a couple of red coats onto the first expedition. Where were the devastated husbands and wives grieving their loved ones? Do they not get to show emotion because their rank is too low? I’m looking at Ledward here. Surely he has a wife or girlfriend on board?

Aside from picking nits, the film is genuinely a great effort, probably a lot better than Prometheus. There are a number of great nods to previous films – the face-hugger makes its comeback – and it feels like Scott has set out to make a crowdpleaser. That’s definitely not a bad thing.

The partner element is an intelligent way to add depth to all of the characters. Shortly into the main plot, James Franco’s Captain Branson dies, immediately answering the question of why he wasn’t featured more prominently in the advertising campaign (a missed trick in my opinion). This plunges Katherine Waterston’s Daniels into immediate emotional turmoil, though she quickly rises out of it and continues with her mission objectives.

Waterston has some big Sigourney Weaver sized shoes to fill in terms of taking the female lead role. I’m sure she has felt the pressures of her predecessor, though it doesn’t show on screen. She does a fantastic job and at times carries the film, acting as the sensible decision maker, the natural leader and the only one with the will to fight back when everything goes pear shaped. Sure, the strong and intelligent female protagonist is becoming a bit of a broken record in modern cinema, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Signourney Weaver in Alien is probably the best early example of it being done so well, certainly in terms of Blockbuster films in genres usually associated with male audiences.

The final act is wholly worth of the Alien canon, rescuing a film that at times had threatened to go off the rails. It’s here that Scott ramps up the tension and action, paying off the setup over the previous 90-ish minutes.

If the final 30 minutes is great, then the final ten seconds is utter genius.

If you have any misgivings about the Alien franchise, Covenant is the film that will bring you back on track.

Film review – Their Finest (Lone Scherfig, 2016)

You may look at the premise of Their Finest and, coupled with the cast, assume that the film is a lighthearted romp with its aim directly at those to whom World War II is a trip down memory lane rather than a history lesson. It’s an assessment that isn’t wildly wide of the mark, but there’s more substance here than meets the eye.

The story is about a woman rising up against industry stereotypes and an oppressive partner to become a great screenwriter for propaganda war films. That woman is Catrin Cole (Gemma Arteton) and the film-within-a-film depicts two sisters’ efforts in the miraculous evactuation of stranded Allied troops from Dunkirk beach. Central to this film is the drunken Uncle Frank, set to be portrayed by Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), whilst the film is co-written with Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). Other minor roles include Jeremy Irons as the Secretary of War and Richard E. Grant as a studio executive.

Claflin and Arteton

Despite a feeling that a romantic subplot was going to undo all the hard work put in by a female lead being expertly guided by a female director, it was a wise choice to make her feelings for co-writer Tom serve a purpose to inspire Catrin’s career rather than making her career integral to her romantic endeavours. In this way, her feelings towards her co-writer is simply a character-building device.

There was a brief moment where I felt they were throwing away a really interesting character in her faux-husband Ellis Cole (Jack Huston). This is a man who has been injured in a previous battle and thus cannot join the war effort, nor can he earn a consistent living to support himself and Catlin. His failings are that he cannot bring himself to accept his partner’s financial support. In 2017 this is likely to stir an element of frustration amongst the feminist cinema-goers, which is a perfectly reasonable response given this remains such a hot topic. However, if one really tries hard to imagine the emotions of a man suffering from inadequacy-related depression in the height of World War II, I can’t help but feel that his side of the story wasn’t explored enough. His eventual lack of faithfulness was the easy route out of a cul-de-sac.

Bill Nighy’s role was satisfyingly gripping. His portrayal of an older actor struggling to be taken seriously following earlier successes is something that must resonate with many in the industry. Nighy is consistently and effortlessly funny in every role he tackles and that must, in an unusual way, be quite restrictive for his role choices. Here he is very much light relief but he plays a pivotal role in the final act when it comes to reasoning with a depressed Catlin. It’s a heartbreaking scene that really stands out as a centrepiece for both character arcs.

For all the accuracies in the costumes, scenery, colour choices, music and tone, the whole film would be nothing without an excellent performance from Arteton. This is a role that is specifically targeted to resonate with women who have had to rise up against criticism from men at home and at work throughout their lives. 

From Gemma Arteton all the way back to novelist Lissa Evans, the women involved with bringing this tale to life have left their mark. Women creating high quality cinema was a surprising success in 1940 and it’s a shame that the industry still feels the same way almost eighty years later. 

Film review – My Feral Heart (Jane Gull, 2016)

Last night 36 cinemas in the U.K. played host to screenings of My Feral Heart as part of World Down Syndrome Day. The many 100s in attendance were treated to a moving portrayal of coping with loss and the difficulties of abrupt changes in circumstances that people with Down syndrome are sometimes forced to cope with.

Star Steven Brandon plays Luke, a young man with Down syndrome who is coming to terms with the death of his mother. Moved to a nearby care home, he must forge new relationships with the carer at the home Eve (Shana Swash) and a man working nearby on community service called Pete (Will Rastal). After leaving the home to explore the surrounding areas he is comes across a girl in need of help, a task that brings Luke new purpose.

The performance by the lead actor Brandon is extremely moving. This is a complex role that he clearly gave a lot of emotion to. He is a heartbroken son living alongside people he doesn’t feel any connection towards and also feeling robbed of his independence. 

There’s a clear comradery between the three lead characters and it’s in these scenes you feel the charm of the humour. It feels natural when Pete laughs at Luke for thinking babies “come from China”, before a big infectious smile appears on Luke’s face. Without this chemistry the film could have fallen down, but praise must also go to director Jane Gull for cultivating and capturing this on film.

The performances are complimented by a wonderfully-orchestrated soundtrack by Barrington Pheloung, who has been crafting high quality film and television scores for almost thirty years.

The ultimate ideal is that people will view this film and change their underlying feelings about Down syndrome, either through the effect of the story or due to the brilliant performance from Brandon. The rhetoric surrounding World Down Syndrome Day is that those living with the condition don’t have special needs, but human needs. They don’t have to be treated completely differently to anyone else. Though the message is precisely this in My Feral Heart, the film itself serves as evidence enough of a great acting achievement by a bright young actor with Down syndrome.

It is heartwarming and completely moving, and it’s something that really deserves to be seen.