Film review – Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2016)

There are obvious paths to go down to tell a story about victims of child abuse. This film eschews the story of the individuals who have suffered the abuse, instead concentrating on the journalistic team that fought hard to uncovered the abuse. It deliberately attempts to portray just how difficult it was to reveal the truth about something when nobody wants to listen and everybody involved is trying to cover up what has happened. It is an effective but devastating success.

The title of the film is taken from an investigative journalistic unit that tackles stories it deems of necessary interest to the readers of The Boston Globe. In 2002 it published an exposé on Roman Catholic priests in the Boston area, offering evidence of not only child molestation and rape, but also of the systemic cover-up of the evidence by the church. The truths they found were horrific in both nature and magnitude.

Whilst the movie is truly an ensemble piece, there are three wonderfully nuanced performances that help make this film so effective.

The first comes from Stanley Tucci as the attorney Mitchell Garabedian. Tucci is a really special actor and he’s in fine form here. Garabedian has represented innumerable victims of the abuse and each time has been unable to affect change, with critical documents being suppressed by the church. Reminiscent of his role in Margin Call as Eric Dale, he is a man with knowledge of the wider secret dying for those around him to find out what’s truly going on.

A smaller but memorable turn comes from Neal Huff as Phil Saviano, head of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Based on a real person going by the same name, he makes the most of his limited screen time when he provides a harrowing monologue the first time he meets the Spotlight team. A frustrated picture of a man that likely represents the emotions felt by each and every survivor.

The finest performance, however, is from Michael Keaton as the Chief Editor of Spotlight, Walter “Bobby” Robinson. Throughout the story Bobby is a man wrestling with his conscience. He knows that to make the story as effective as possible he needs to wait for all the facts to be in place and make a thorough, damning article that cannot be ignored. However, doing this means sitting on the information whilst the abuse continues in the city. Late in the picture when he finds out he was actually tipped off about the scandal twenty years previously, he must conclude that he is finally bringing justice to the city despite potentially having the power to prevent generations of systemic abuse. Keaton nails it, reminding us all once again how great it is to have him back on the big screen in a role of substance.

I’m surprised Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams have been selected for an Oscar nomination ahead of those they share the screen with. Fine actors though they are, it must have been a tough call to select two from a long list of solid performances. Ruffalo seemed to be holding back slightly, though that was perhaps a deliberate choice I didn’t pick up on fully.

It is rare that a whole audience is left in absolute silence at the end of a screening, but even on a busy Saturday afternoon there didn’t seem to be anyone that felt anything other than stunned. The reason for this was a devastating list of all the locations they have uncovered scandals in since the publishing of the initial article in 2002, firstly in the USA, then globally.

For this reason the film is now serving the same purpose as the original article: to shine a spotlight on a diabolical scandal that should have been eradicated decades ago. It is possibly the most important film you will see this year.

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.