Tag Archives: London Film Festival

Black Swan

By some measure the most intense 105 minutes I’ve spent in a cinema this year, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a melodramatic psychological horror that plunges the viewer into the disintegrating mind of a young woman. 

Natalie Portman stars as Nina, a driven ballerina whose major career break – the chance to perform the dual roles of the White and Black Swans in Swan Lake – places an intolerable strain on her psyche. 

Early on, the company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell) helpfully explains the plot of Swan Lake for us, dwelling on the conflict between the good White Swan and her evil lustful twin, the Black Swan.  Leroy has no doubt that Natalie is up to the role of the White Swan, but doubts she can embody the wilder, sensuous Black.  But he nevertheless decides to give her a chance at the role.  She continues to struggle: she constantly strives for perfection, but her idea of perfection is a purely technical one that doesn’t help her inhabit both roles.  Egged on by her controlling mother, whose own dance career was cut short when Nina was conceived, Nina clearly has long-term issues with self harm (she scratches herself obsessively, and it’s safe to add anorexia into the mix).  She also starts to feel increasingly threatened by Lily, a rival dancer who is… well, more of a Black Swan type.
The plot could have come from a 60s B movie; indeed, I couldn’t shake the idea that a version of the same script made 40 – 50 years earlier would have had Roger Corman and Vincent Price’s names in the credits (though whether Price would have been in the Cassell or Portman role is a question I couldn’t quite resolve).  But the execution is another matter.  I haven’t seen an Aronofsky film since Pi – not that I’ve particularly tried to avoid his stuff, it’s just sort of happened – so I can’t say if Black Swan is representative of his work (he states in the LFF catalogue that he sees it as a companion piece to The Wrestler, both films being about performers who use their bodies to express their souls).  It’s certainly not an easy watch.  Not only do we see the appalling punishment to which ballet dancers subject their feet (you want to beg them to take up a safer career, like maybe boxing, or juggling chainsaws while blindfold) but as Nina starts to hallucinate, various nasty things happen to nails in close up.  I haven’t had to look away from the screen so often since Saw III.
What the film does brilliantly is oblige us to share Nina’s increasingly shaky grip on reality.  It starts early on as Nina glimpses someone on the subway train who appears to be her double; we later discover that this is Lily, who gets off at the wrong stop on her way to her first rehearsal, but we – like Nina – are rattled already.  The doppelganger theme continues as Nina feels under attack variously from Lily – who may or may not be seeking to replace her – but from an apparently imaginary double.  It’s normally easy to spot which scenes in a film are real (in the context of the narrative) and which are fake.  It’s less so in this one. 

What really anchors the film is Natalie Portman as Nina; she is superb, and a sure bet for an Oscar nomination.  A less committed performance would have sunk the film, leaving us laughing as the plot, and the imagery, becomes ever more hysterical.  Portman is absolutely believable as the controlled, repressed, heartbreakingly fragile Nina.  Aronofsky’s visual and audio tricks take the film into the realm of madness; his star keeps it firmly believable.  

Black Swan is probably not for everyone, and may well be a love it or hate it film.  I thought it was amazing, and would absolutely urge anyone interested to see it in a cinema for the most immersive experience possible.

The American

George Clooney as a hitman dodging bullets in picturesque Italian towns sounds like a winner.  However, Anton Corbijn’s follow up to Control takes a more existential route than the average moviegoer might wish.
Clooney stars as a butterfly loving assassin/gun supplier who, in the opening sequence, is targeted by couple of Swedes who have it in for him.  Following the ensuing carnage – which includes one jaw-dropping shock moment – he is sent by his boss to Italy to hide out.  Here, he hangs out in coffee bars, chats to a local priest, and contemplates the emptiness of his life while getting closer to a prostitute – despite having learned the hard way that friends are a bad idea in his game. 

The film looks good, with beautiful locations and a hot cast.  Emotionally, though, it’s cold.  The film is as taciturn as its lead character, aiming very much for an arthouse atmosphere, even in the action scenes.  It would not have been a surprise to see the director’s credit reading, ‘Steven Soderbergh, after Antonini’.  I was also reminded of Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior, another arthouse flick dressed up – possibly by the marketers rather than the makers – to look like an action thriller.
There’s plenty to admire here, but the general public may feel the film has been missold.  

Let Me In

We already have one adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel Let the Right One In, and those who have seen it generally agree it’s a pretty good one.  However, it has the bad luck not to be in English, so here comes Hollywood to provide us with a dumber remake.
Except it’s not dumb.  It’s a very impressive film that manages to be loyal to both the source novel and the film, while adding a few extra shades of its own. 
It’s interesting to see that this is the first cinema release from the freshly revived Hammer Films (they also have a new logo that uses old poster artwork, in a manner reminiscent of the Marvel Studios one).  Hammer weren’t shy of remakes and adaptations in their golden years, though then the choices were usually familiar literary properties like Dracula and Frankenstein (OK, and On the Buses) rather than a recent arthouse hit.  But they’ve made a wise move in looking beyond their back catalogue. 
Lonely, bullied 12 year old Oscar seems to have made a new friend when a girl calls Abby moves in next door with a man who he assumes to be her father.  But after a murder or two, Oscar comes to realise that Abby is not actually 12 – or rather, has been 12 for a very long time – and needs a fresh supply of blood to live. 
Matt Reeve’s film has the taste to stay faithful to the visual and narrative style of Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish version; as with Gore Verbinski’s similarly close remake of The Ring, some shots are almost identical.  He has also cast two excellent young actors, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Moretz in the lead roles, with the slightly more experienced Richard Jenkins providing support (his scenes with Moretz are tender and disturbing at the same time).  As with The Ring, though, we do have to tolerate a few shots done up with unnecessary effects; Abby’s vampire attacks are sped up and enhanced with CGI, and look cartoony rather than horrific.  (She also leaps on one victim in view of a witness who she must have been able to spot, which is a bit of a strange decision).  But on the other hand, we lose the cat attack scene that was the original’s least convincing moment. 
There are other changes, inevitably.  The question about Abby/Eli’s gender has been given the chop (so to speak…) – not a loss newcomers would notice, though it does mean Abby’s question, “Would you like me if I wasn’t a girl”, loses a layer of meaning.  But the biggest change comes in one small scene where Oscar finds photos of Abby with a young Father.  A tiny moment, but it radically alters the Father’s character and, by implication, Abby’s.  The Swedish film is not explicit, but my reading was that the ‘father’, Hakan, was a paedophile recruited by Eli to hunt for her and provide protection (this was confirmed by the novel, which I read subsequently).  Making him a childhood friend of Abby’s suggests she may be consciously grooming Oscar as a replacement.  I can’t see much sign of this in Moretz’s performance – she seems to be playing the character as written in the original version – so I’d be interested to know why Reeves made this change, and if he discussed its implication with his actors.  It actually makes the ending of the film far bleaker than that of the original. 
Let Me In may not escape the long shadow cast by its predecessors, but it is nevertheless the best kind of remake: one which stays respectful to the source material while standing firmly on its own.

Never Let Me Go

The opening film of this year’s London Film Festival is an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s SF-tinged novel, directed by Mark Romanek and starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley as Kathy, Tommy and Ruth.  Growing up together in a slightly odd boarding school – initially played by three child actors who look uncannily like their older counterparts, so much so that you half suspect Mulligan has been somehow digitally made younger – the threesome become entwined in a love triangle that plays out against the discovery of their true purpose in life.

The film suffers from the same problem as many literary adaptations: the use of voiceover to fill in chunks of plot.  I don’t doubt that this works in the novel, but with Kathy effectively telling the whole story in flashback, the viewer is immediately at one remove from the events on screen: it gets in the way of emotional involvement.
But that’s a relatively minor problem.  The big one is that at no point was I convinced by the world portrayed in the film.  It’s set in a kind of dystopian alternative England with one foot still in the 1950s, where the use of cloned human beings for enforced organ donation is a fact of everyday life.  How the hell does that work?  We live in a society where the use of stem cells in cancer research is controversial, where abortion stirs passionate debate, where animal rights activists will adopt techniques usually associated with terrorist groups.  Are we really supposed to believe that the general public blithely accept the use of human clones as body banks?  They are out in the community, to some extent: certainly, the hospital staff all seem aware of what’s happening.  Does nobody try to help these people?  Do none of them try to escape?
Other questions I found myself asking: are these organ donations available to all and sundry, or only the wealthy and privileged?  The former would presumably lead to a rise in the number of centenarians, so what’s that done to the pensions crisis?  And if it’s the latter, if the bulk of the country can’t benefit from these medical advances, they’re surely more likely to indulge in moral qualms about what’s being done to the clones. 

If I’m being bothered by questions like these while I’m watching the film, then I tend to think something’s wrong.  I’m told by those who have read it that such issues aren’t a problem when reading the book, so maybe Ishiguro makes it work in print in a way that it doesn’t on screen.  As it is, the film has to be regarded as a metaphor, with the central trio standing in for whichever exploited group you prefer: slaves, battery hens, take your pick.  This is a valid approach, and could allow the film to raise questions about the extent to which any of us are controlled and have our freedoms restricted by the state (Kathy’s final voiceover does just this, but too late).  But I think screenwriter Alex Garland tried to make the film work as a convincing portrayal of a fascist – or arguably fascist – state, and it doesn’t.
But if the film is hollow at the core, it does benefit from some terrific work by the cast, notably Mulligan and Garfield.  It’s thanks to their work that the ending does pack a substantial emotional punch.  But it should have been much more powerful; the knowledge of the full evil to which these innocents have been subjected should leave you utterly crushed.  It doesn’t.  

In the end, this is a superbly played, good looking and generally well mounted film that is, sadly, a little inert.