Film review – Dancer (Steven Cantor, 2016)

Documentary filmmaker Steven Cantor’s latest cross-examination comes in the form of Dancer, which tells the story of Ukrainian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin, who in 2010 became the youngest man to become the British Royal Ballet’s leading principal.

Sergei Polunin dances to Hozier

The film uses talking heads interviews blended with some exclusive home video footage to creature a portrait of a fragile artist. Polunin is shown as a man who knows little outside his art and is desperate to change the future for upcoming ballet dancers who he fears will make the same mistakes as he did. These mistakes led to him quitting the British Royal Ballet Feeling at the tender age of twenty-two, shocking the ballet world and disappointing his fans.

Most insightful are the interviews with his mother and father. Clearly huge sacrifices were made throughout his life to get him to where he is now. The film leaves it open as to whether either of them regret putting him through it, and it’s not something that ever really needs an answer. He certainly has a different life to the one he would have had if he’d stayed in Khersan, Ukraine.

The focal point of the film comes in the form of the Dave LaChapelle-directed video that went viral earlier this year. I urge you to stop reading and watch the video below on the largest screen you can find.

This video has, at last count, been viewed 16.3m times in the last eight months. That is an astonishing amount, but then it is an astonishing piece of art. It was choreographed by Jade Hale-Christophi, a ballet dancer with Polunin met at the British Royal Ballet and one of his closest friends. The purpose of the film was to announce his retirement and have that as his “final dance”, but the response was so great he decided to change tact, and instead wants to do guest appearances and one-off pieces of art.

This is a crucial thing for him. The reason he has struggled throughout his career is a lack of time to step back, ask himself what he really wants, and make an informed decision about the next career choice.

He also spoke after the screening about where ballet’s David Beckham is. I suspect after that video and this film, he need only look in the mirror to find him.

A fascinating examination of a tortured artist now seemingly on the straight and narrow.

Dancer will receive a DVD release in April via Dogwoof.

X+Y (Morgan Matthews, 2014)

X+Y is a British film from BBC Films that follows the story of Nathan (Asa Butterfield), a teenage mathematics prodigy who is more comfortable dealing with numbers than he is with people. When he is selected to represent Great Britain on the International Mathematical Olympiad, he is forced to travel to Taiwan. As pressure to perform in the tournament grows and he finds an unlikely source of romance in Zhang Mai (Jo Yang), he soon finds that being out of his comfort zone is the starting point for a challenging journey of self-realisation.

One thing I was worried about as I sat there in the cinema waiting for it to start, was how they were going to portray autism. Inevitably we’re going to compare lead character Nathan to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man or Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, probably the two most iconic on-screen portrayals of people on the autistic spectrum. Unfortunately for sufferers of autism, this drastically sells the condition short to people who aren’t overly aware of it. Autism is a condition that affects those close to someone on the spectrum as much as the person themselves, and to assume that they will simply be a bit awkward around people and good at maths is doing it a misjustice. Many sufferers find comfort in the strict rules set out in maths – it’s an emotionless interest. However, others find the same solace in a regimented interpretation of music, with its repetitive patterns and melodies and set mathematics behind complimentary frequencies of notes. Others become obsessive over lists and facts, whatever the topic might be. Others just don’t. There are mild forms of autism and severe forms, which is why diagnosis can be tricky as early signs can’t be placed on the spectrum by someone unfamiliar with the condition. 

So it’s unfortunate that autism has been portrayed on screen by means of a maths genius yet again, even though the director has previous work on autism (2008’s Beautiful Young Minds), which covers it in a more factual manner. However, X+Y is by no means just a light-hearted walk in the park and I enjoyed the fact a lot of time was spent with Nathan’s mother Julie (Sally Hawkins) as she came to terms with the loss of a close relative with no emotional support from her son. This was an important portion of the film that gave the right emphasis to the right areas and should be applauded.



I felt Butterfield’s portrayal of a child suffering from autism was very accurate, and I felt the frustration seeping through his inability to understand others. He has become a very accomplished actor throughout the three or four major films he has been part of so far, and as long as he keeps his feet on the ground for a couple more years he will continue to be successful for a long time.

Another great performance was from Jake Davies as Luke, whose character was a much more acute sufferer of autism. One scene involving a dead prawn stuck out for me and I’m sure we’ll be seeing more from him in the future.

The comradery of the maths students didn’t ring true for me. From first hand experience (I partook in mathematics competitions as a child, to some success), these competitions are far from a sociable affair, with most children very much “in the zone” and either unable or unwilling to communicate with their peers. It was a case of get in, do maths, win. Anything else was just unneccesary. So when there’s laughing and joking and, most notably, a cringeworthy rap session (including an awful rhymical recitation of Pi), I just thought back to the suits and classical music I had to endure and wondered how much it really could have changed.

I felt let down by the end. I’m not going to go into details as the film is yet to be released, but it just didn’t ring true to me and seemed to undo a lot of hard work they’d put in earlier in the film in a manner that suggests to me they got lost with the message they wanted to send out. I’ll let you make your own mind up on that one.

Overall it’s a very accomplished film and has many enjoyable points, but I didn’t feel it quite fulfilled its potential.

X+Y is released at UK cinemas on 13th March 2015.

Saving Mr Banks (John Lee Hancock, 2013)

I was inevitably sceptical about watching this. It’s a film that was created, in part, by Walt Disney Studios and stars family-favourite actor Tom Hanks as family-favourite animator, voice-actor and business magnate Walt Disney. If there’s ever any story that’s going to sugar-coat the facts, it is this.

Fortunately for Saving Mr Banks, Walt Disney is not the main character. That honour goes to Emma Thompson’s portrayal of Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers. Even more fortunately, her portrayal is up there with the finest of her career.

The story centres around Disney’s ongoing pursuit of producing a film adaptation of Poppins, something that Travers had resisted for years due to her apparent hatred of everything the company has ever been associated with.

In particular, we pick up the main thread story as she embarks on a short two-week trip to the studio headquarters to meet with a small creative team consisting of music legends the Sherman brothers (brilliantly portrayed by Jason Schwarzman and B. J. Novak) and Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford). Her main intent is seemingly to sabotage every ounce of creativity in the hopes that the film is never made, lest the essence of her perfectly sculpted tale be destroyed.

This is intertwined with flashbacks to her time growing up in 1907 Queensland. These are the real standout portions of the film, and they shy away from the watered-down story we are unravelling in 1961 Los Angeles. Colin Farrell‘s turn as Traver’s alcoholic father is exceptional and this story is key to understanding how she acts in later life. I wished we had been treated to longer in Australia, but this tale was never going to be a three hour epic.

Back in LA, the story moves along at a reasonable pace, adding enough humour to the mix to ensure we don’t forget how magical the film making process is when Walt is driving it. This often works, but I shook my head in disbelief at the scene in which Travers finally changes her mind and starts to support the film. I won’t spoil it, but I’d love to know whether or not this really happened. I suspect not. It is somewhat ironic that a story centring on someone’s dislike of the Disney filmmaking process should be treated in exactly that manner.

Hanks didn’t have a lot to work with and that’s to be understood. That said, he still gives a stellar performance and he can’t be faulted. He will be considered for the awards season regardless, but not for this film – Captain Phillips is a much meatier role for him to be proud of, and one that will doubtless be featured heavily when the awards nominees are announced in January.

The praise in this film, rather, should be heaped upon Thompson for successfully portraying what must have been an immensely difficult character to master. That she makes us warm so much to a person that was evidently so emotionally cold is something worth admiring, even if everything around her is so sugar-coated.

Saving Mr Banks is released in cinemas in the UK on 29th November 2013.

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