Film review – Begin Again (John Carney, 2013)

If Inside Llewyn Davis is the poisonous view of the hardest and most demoralising sides of the music industry, with all its rejection, squalor and misery, then Begin Again is the antidote. They are from different sides of the tracks and share nothing but a basic premise and the same city (New York) in common.

Begin Again tells the intertwining stories of two people whose lives have been ruined by the music industry. Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) has been sacked from his own record company by co-founder Saul (Mos Def) and has taken to the bottle to avoid finding focus in his life, much to the detriment of his relationship with daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). He has a chance meeting in a bar with Gretta James (Keira Knightley), who has plenty of talent but no stage presence or confidence. He decides she has enough potential to turn into something more than just a singer at an open mic night, though her reluctance is powered by the recent breakdown of her relationship with Dave Kohl (Adam Levine), now seemingly destined for stardom.

Everything falls into place perfectly easily. Hurray.

Everything falls into place perfectly easily. Hurray.

Begin Again falls down where films like Inside Llewyn Davis or Carney’s last film Once succeeded for the simple reason that the songs and performances simply aren’t as good. Keira Knightley has found herself in an awkward situation. Her fame ultimately puts her as an a-lister actress and celebrity, with the ability to elevate an average film to blockbuster status due to her past successes. As a viewer, subconsciously there is an expectation that her ability as a musical performer should match that. Sadly, the studio has had this well in mind and ensured, through post-production, that her voice and entire backing track is polished to perfection, removing the intimacy seen in Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s raw but powerful performances in Once. It’s an inevitable source of frustration as it is evident she has some talent, though what that is feels hard to decipher.

Ruffalo’s performance lacks conviction and the feeling that he has been really scorned by the music industry never fully materialises. Adam Levine plays his part coolly, almost as an exaggeration of his real-life personality (or what it is perceived to be). Steinfeld provides another assured performance in her supporting role, even though she doesn’t look like she’s ever picked up a guitar before. James Corden makes the most of his limited screen time.

It’s disappointing that overall this film fails to deliver on so many levels. The one thing it will be remembered for is the track “Lost Stars”, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song in 2015. It is the one song here that stands up to those around which Once was built. However, one song does not a musical make; it is very unlikely this will follow its predecessor onto the West End and thus it is destined to be forgotten.

Begin Again is available for purchase now, or can be streamed on Netflix.

The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014)

Every so often I see a new film that absolutely blows my socks off, where the storyline sits perfectly with my mood and I get totally enthralled in the joyous and rare occasion of seeing what could be one of my favourite films of all time. The Imitation Game was one of those films.

It is a film in three intertwined parts, covering three key periods of Alan Turing’s life: the schooldays in which Alex Lawther plays a young Turing, complete with serious bullying and a growing fondness of his best friend Christopher; the war years, where he devises and eventually builds the Turing machine that eventually cracks the Enigma code (sorry, spoiler alert!); and the early 1960s when he is investigated and prosecuted for his homosexuality. All three are critical to giving us the full picture of Turing throughout his life.

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Cumberbatch’s ability to transform himself and become his subject is uncanny, perhaps rivalled only by Michael Sheen by today’s younger actors for chameleon-like abilities. Having seen him in so many different roles (for range you can compare his performance as Smaug in the current Hobbit trilogy to his powerful turn in 12 Years A Slave), he never ceases to amaze me as to how there’s such little crossover between his characters. And so it is here: a totally unique take on a totally unique person.

The scenes during which the machine is developed and successfully executed is the real joy to behold. The take on Turing has no elements of a stereotypical cinema autism sufferer; this tale is set in the real world and without any intentional throwaway punchlines. People with severe autism often find themselves – intentionally or not – having disconnected exchanges with others in real life that to outsiders seem very hilarious, though the comedy here is brought to life by the chemistry with his on-screen companions. Perhaps the best example of this was the Armed Forces interview with Charles Dance, which almost completely ruins Turing’s chances of taking part in the war efforts. I won’t explain it, but it is certainly a highlight.

I imagine the film will come under criticism from people accusing it of being a slightly jingoistic, self-appreciating celebration of how great Great Britain really was back in the day. Very little screen time is given to even mentioning any other country’s war efforts. The truth is that Britain really were the only nation involved with the Turing machines and cracking Enigma, but this film isn’t about a war but about a man. In any case, it’s not only a celebration of a fantastic collaborative effort of some of the greatest minds of a generation, but also a celebration of a time when it was okay to be a proud Brit; when we had plenty to be proud of on a global scale. And jolly good it was too.

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I’d love to contribute some criticism of it and counter balance why I think negative aspects are acceptable, but nothing springs to mind. The support cast (Keira Knightley, Martin Strong, Charles Dance) were phenomenal, and ensured this didn’t turn into a one-man-show. The music was truly sublime and fitted the mood well. There really wasn’t anything to say that could be considered negative.

Please, do yourself a favour. Watch this film.

The Imitation Game is released in UK cinemas on 14th November and in the USA on 21st November.