Film Reviews by PD

Welcome to PD's film reviews page. PD has written 179 reviews and rated 279 films.

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Parallel Mothers

Engaging melodrama if lacking depth

(Edit) 26/05/2022

The latest from Almodovar involves two intertwining thematic strands of motherhood and exhumed Spanish history. There are an awful lot of promising threads, but for me none of them are developed in much depth, although very strong performances from leads Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit do a lot to make the film engaging, with their expressive emotional range and controlled discipline through which they put over their director’s rather forced writing. Cruz's Janis bonds well with Smit's much younger Ana from the start: this is partly via their artistic natures, but also through the lack of paternal presences - their opening sequence is very effective as Janis’s boss at work, a surrogate mother figure, and Ana’s own single mother Teresa step into the maternity ward. The film definitely makes us feel the pain of women — in childbirth, in disappointment and in loss — intensely. Unfortunately, so much then happens from this point which strains credulity and only “works” in that sort of soap-opera world which is fine if you want gentle melodramatic escapism but is rather incongruous in a piece which (rightly) takes itself very seriously. Moreover, a sudden, third-act shift in their relationship throws the film right off balance because it suddenly seems to lose interest in the ramifications for its two main characters whom we've come to care about so much.

Nevertheless, the film is undeniably well-meaning: stemming from a sincere desire to address the most fraught aspect of his nation’s civic history whose aftermath produced almost 40 years of fascist rule, the film is successful in scanning the contemporary notion in Spain that its legacy and afterlife haven’t been properly examined; silence abounding as the country now enjoys its relative liberal prosperity.

4 out of 4 members found this review helpful.

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The Souvenir: Part II

Hogg's best yet

(Edit) 12/05/2022

If you enjoyed Souvenir Part One, and admire Joanna Hogg's work in general, then you're in for a big treat here, for this is her most accomplished feature to date. Deeper, funnier, far more imaginative and personal than its predecessor, The Souvenir Part II is a filmmaker working at the peak of her powers, for if it's Hogg’s most personal film, it is also her most ambitious, straddling genre and form to present a story about grief but not necessarily about grieving.

In one of many brilliant scenes, a quiet drama is built around the accidental smashing of a ceramic sugar bowl, and aptly enough, the second chapter of this semi-autobiographical brace is a film about picking up the pieces. At its heart, The Souvenir Part II is a portrait of a young woman getting to grips with a broken life in general and her nascent creativity in particular. After the death of her heroin-addicted lover Anthony at the end of the first film, Honor Swinton Byrne’s film-school student Julie Harte — the J.H. initials suggest the director’s alter-ego — is at a turning point in her filmmaking. Jettisoning her project about working-class life in the Sunderland docks, Julie decides to make a version of her relationship with Anthony. His absence looms large as Julie attempts to make sense of her grief, reconciling the man she loved with the reality of his addiction and untimely demise. It’s an uncomfortable if inevitable position, but Julie displays a drive and determination previously absent as she drifted through life, coasting on her privilege. There are still moments that highlight her good fortune, yet she doesn’t take it for granted now she understands the fragility that surrounds her. Meanwhile, Hogg, ripping from her own time at film school, paints a painfully believable portrait of student filmmaking, the sense of rivalry, squabbles — there is a wonderfully convincing argument in the back of a minibus — and the idiosyncratic, indecisive process of a young filmmaker failing to share their vision with the cast and crew. Julie also takes her first steps in the professional film world through vividly realised pop-promo shoots and reuniting with flamboyant filmmaker Patrick, whom she met briefly in the first part. Patrick is an egomaniacal auteur who compares himself to Scorsese (an executive producer on both Souvenir films) and dismisses praise during editing (“That’s marvellously generic.” “You’re forcing me to have a tantrum”), yet finds notes of pathos in a third-act meeting with Julie in Soho in the rain.

Hogg’s control of her filmmaking palate is very impressive throughout. Around Julie’s filmmaking exploits, Hogg adds in different textures. Post Anthony, Julie has three very different relationships with three very different men, and there are also beautifully played scenes with Julie and her parents, perfectly toggling between affection and reserve, whilst a very clever late sequence is a trick mirror of sound and images, drawing from the past to make sense of the present. But this is Honor Swinton Byrne’s film. No longer in the shadow of Tom Burke’s overbearing Anthony, she comes into her own here: still a quiet, delicate presence, but one that is absolutely absorbing. Hogg is very successful at creating something honest and true from the fabrication of filmmaking; about living with tragedy, about finding your own voice and ultimately about growing up. And questions of what compels us to make art – and what purpose art should serve – linger after the credits roll. Very strong stuff indeed.

2 out of 2 members found this review helpful.

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Belfast

Bittersweet memories of a Belfast childhood but charm over realism

(Edit) 05/05/2022

Kenneth Branagh’s curiously nostalgic piece is every bit the contradiction in terms that it sounds like: you can sort of see what he's trying to do - give a bittersweet picture of the beginnings of the 'Troubles' through a 9-year old's eyes , but despite some powerful scenes the whole thing is so drenched in sentiment that it's very difficult to take seriously. In stark contrast to so many films about or informed by the violence that plagued the city during the latter half of the 20th century, 'Belfast' ultimately opts for romanticism over realism at every turn. It's also a film that wants desperately to be a work of art, but it takes more than black and white cinematography and an affecting central character to bring this off successfully.

The opening sequence is pretty good - Jude Hill as Buddy sword-fighting an innocent swarm of other children in a frenzied street scene interrupted by a mob of angry Protestants looking to cleanse the neighbourhood of the remaining Catholics. Jude Hill as Buddy is all a bit one-dimensional throughout, but there are strong performances from Jamie Dornan as his all-too absent father, who balances his excellent performance between the decency of a man who refuses to raise a fist to his neighbour and the fragility of one who’s concerned about the well-being of his wife and sons, and Caitríona Balfe as Buddy’s similarly beautiful mother, pictured with the elegance of an adult trying to picture what his mother looked like in her prime, and in whose mouth is put the film’s most pivotal speech. There is an irritating Judi Dench as Buddy’s spicy grandma (her Irish accent is worse than mine), but she is offset by the wonderful Ciarán Hinds as her ailing husband of 1,000 years (and Buddy’s confidant). “There’s only one right answer,” Buddy says when talking to his grandpa about the brewing Troubles. “If that were true,” his grandpa replies, “people wouldn’t be blowing themselves up all across this town.”

Branagh creates a vivid sense of Buddy’s home life — warm, chaotic, rooted to the soil — and of a city whose rapid descent into violence threatens to smash the idyllic snow-globe that is his world. There's a great touch of a bellicose, Wellesian minister at his church scaring the boy into drawing a literal road map that divines heaven from hell, a striking (presumably autobiographical) detail in a film full of them, and an underwritten thread in a film that doesn’t have many (Buddy has an older brother and sister, but the characters' only purpose is as supplements to Buddy, which is a shame). And there's some lovely scenes as Buddy and his family watch such classics as 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance' and 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' (where the film is momentarily in colour), attesting to cinema’s transportive and inspiring nature; Branagh shrewdly conveys how films are intimately enmeshed with our memories of the past. But because the film underplays the tensions and grievances of the Troubles for such a long stretch of its running time, scenes that attempt political profundities are less an acknowledgement of truths that can no longer be shielded from a child than simply intrusive melodrama.

The film is soundtracked by an incessant string of Van Morrison songs that strain to convey some of the happy-go-lucky childlike energy that’s missing from so much of the camerawork. It’s a telling detail of a very personal film that — despite shimmering with the essence of Branagh’s love — sorely lacks a point-of-view or a sense of cohesion. All in all, lots of charm, but rarely convincing - a retreat from reality rather than an engagement with it.

8 out of 9 members found this review helpful.

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My First Summer

Gently moving, dreamy teen romance

(Edit) 29/04/2022

This very short, tender and dreamy film concerns the relationship between sheltered and isolated 16 year-old Claudia (Markella Kavenagh), left traumatised and vulnerable after the death of her mother, and Grace (Maiah Stewardson), who seeks Claudia out to check on her wellbeing. The connection between the two young girls is instant and intense, leading to Claudia discovering something of the the joys of the world beyond the four walls of her house and the woodlands on her doorstep. Inevitably, however, their shared idyll rests on borrowed time.

There’s an intriguing darkness at the outset of this story - a rumble of dysfunction in the relationship between Claudia and her mother, a novelist and eccentric recluse who taught her daughter that there is “nothing but pain” in the world beyond their isolated existence. Her mother had so successfully protected Claudia that when she dies, in a deliberate act which nearly claims her daughter’s life as well, the authorities are not even aware of Claudia’s existence. Director Katie Found leans heavily on the use of colour when it comes to exploring the impact of Grace on the life of Claudia - Clad in a pink tutu, with a wardrobe that seems to consist mainly of zinging extrovert primaries and plastic jewellery, Grace injects a burst of energy and positivity into the washed-out sadness of Claudia’s home. Stewardson is a charismatic presence, who perhaps seems more at ease in her role than Kavenagh as the damaged and introspective Claudia.

The adult world is represented by a pair of concerned but lackadaisical policemen, who seem remarkably laid back about the death of Claudia’s mother, and by Grace’s mother, a stridently one-note antagonist with an emotional register which is stuck somewhere between rage and bitterness. And then there’s Claudia’s late mother, who appears to her daughter to dispense prickles of guilt about the pleasure she has found in her relationship with Grace. The love nurtured between the two girls feels all the more precarious when juxtaposed with the uncaring world around them.

The premise takes a huge suspension of disbelief, but ultimately this is a gently moving piece which avoids the usual cliches in coming-of-age/gay-themed films. More to come, hopefully, from a talented director.

1 out of 1 members found this review helpful.

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The Green Knight

Original and visually stunning but ultimately doesn't do justice to the text

(Edit) 14/04/2022

This one offers us a reminder of how difficult it is to put the Gawain tale onto the screen, for whilst there are some very powerful scenes here and whilst it is certainly visually stunning throughout, overall I'm coming away that much of this was a confused mess, I'm afraid. For writer-director David Lowery tries far too hard at giving us a unique take with 'epic' dimensions - including a mix of ghosts, giants, temptresses and mysterious beasts, with each dream-like detour prolonging Gawain's march to the inevitable showdown and the ultimate test of his mettle and manhood. Occupying practically every scene, Patel makes a striking and relatable hero, but he spends much of the time as baffled as the audience is likely to be, for the psychological themes on show are in the end far too vague to be truly thought-provoking. The film's sheer originality is certainly striking, but we still await a film version that does justice to this astonishing work.

2 out of 2 members found this review helpful.

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Luxor

Haunted by past and present: meditative and mature character study in Egypt

(Edit) 13/04/2022

Writer-director Zeina Durra’s short but slow-burning film is a beautifully meditative, history-laden piece, one that asks us to consider how we reconcile our past experiences with our present state, and in turn how we wish our future to be.

Andrea Riseborough is pitch-perfect as the memory-haunted Hana; she's one who can decompress the present in the usual ways: rest, have a drink, commiserate with the friendly manager, even hook up with (and then avoid) a chatty American tourist, but on visiting Luxor’s temples and tombs, however, she feels the pull of past civilisations that struggled with life and death and sought to memorialise birth and rebirth. And when she runs into archaeologist and one-time lover Sultan (a suitably low-key Karim Saleh), their rekindling of a meaningful emotional and intellectual connection amid the beauty of ruins appeals to her past 'self' whilst at the same time bringing her reluctantly toward new choices.

Zelmira Gainza’s evocative location imagery is a bit predictable, whilst the soundtrack is an irritating distraction, but Durra is on solid ground in focusing on a psychological narrative in which the digging up of feelings is a gradual, contemplative journey, something sensed rather than made explicit. Riseborough is great at revealing her multi-layered personality, and her slow-walked reveal of a resilient woman’s vulnerabilities meshes well with Durra’s delicate attention to the antiquity and spiritual mystery around her. in a very modest, quiet mature way, this is impressive stuff.

1 out of 1 members found this review helpful.

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Petite Maman

Magical and profound

(Edit) 27/03/2022

French director Céline Sciamma's beautiful, very short piece deals with some profound themes with a light touch. It focuses on the connection between an 8-year-old girl, Nelly (the perfect Joséphine Sanz), and her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), through a simple leap of imagination. Nelly is a bright and empathic child whom Sciamma first introduces in the retirement home where her grandmother had lived until quite recently and where Nelly’s mother is also saying goodbye. Sciamma subtly — but very discreetly — conveys the change in this young family’s life and the individual healing that each of them do to move forward, and of course at a time when Nelly's identity is still in formation. Sciamma is remarkably skilful at banishing the intellectual noise of adulthood, prioritising sensation and the emotional intuition by which we steer as children, and a very clever magical-realist plot device (involving Sanz's real-life twin sister Gabrielle - also excellent) is very well used to evoke the act of wondering what our own parents went through when they were themselves children. Sciamma gives Nelly the chance to find out, and the plot device serves as both an extension of Nelly’s natural desire to understand her mother and a chance to work out certain things she can’t quite say to her, and to investigate where her mother’s melancholy may have originated.

Sciamma’s tone is playful but never twee, and by casting the sisters Sciamma benefits from the bond that already exists between these girls, which reads here as a kind of instant complicity: a messy crepe-making scene in particular is absolutely wonderful. We sense that Sciamma has asked them to participate in a very personal exercise, but one that’s open-ended enough for them to project themselves. In our children, we often see reflections of the children we once were, we just need a little magic to access those same memories. In doing so, “Petite Maman” definitely casts a very effective spell indeed.

2 out of 3 members found this review helpful.

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Sound of Metal

Astonishing

(Edit) 23/02/2022

I watched it. And then watched it again. An astonishing accomplishment. I love its intensity, its honesty; I speak as someone who has lived with deafness and the specific issue of Cochlear implants.

Ritz Ahmed is compelling as Ruben, and the film takes its time in revealing a humane portrayal of someone coming to terms with a radically new and unwelcome conception of self, and in doing so delves with some depth into the dilemmas involved in the prospect of a miracle cure - and, dare i suggest, the struggle to redefine oneself in the face of a massive and unexpected change that could be applied to many different situations. For our relationships define ourselves, and Sound of Metal is careful in expressing this, most notably by moving through the muffled, disorienting sounds of Ruben’s experience to the alienating clarity of his partner, Lou. The tragedy of Ruben is of course in chaining himself to his old way of being, for he remains set on the implants that he believes will restore his old life, even as he sacrifices everything in its pursuit: Blake: “He who binds to himself a joy / Does the winged life destroy / He who kisses the joy as it flies / Lives in eternity’s sunrise”. Without a trace of sentiment, Sound of Metal makes a case for acceptance and for embracing the inevitability of unpredictable change. Compelling viewing.

1 out of 2 members found this review helpful.

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There Is No Evil

Powerful presentation of moral dilemmas in Iran

(Edit) 20/02/2022

Banned from filmmaking in Iran, director Mohammad Rasoulof returns to the great moral themes that underlie all his work in this generally powerful film, or should we say films - for we get four unrelated stories here, linked only by the central theme of the death penalty and to killing in general, each of which broadcast the message (with varying degrees of subtlety) that Iran’s authoritarian regime can be opposed and resisted, in spite of the powerful influence it exerts on people’s lives. Perhaps the four tales suffer from being narratively uneven, but it's compelling viewing nonetheless.

The first episode is a perfectly balanced and crafted little jewel that, by being the most understated, is perhaps the most hard-hitting of the four, and which might have done better as the culminating final tale. It concerns a day-in-the-life of Heshmat, an average middle-aged man with a well-trimmed beard and an impassive face. Beautifully acted without any undue emphasis, it makes its point with a shock of recognition. The second tale, titled “She said, you can do it”, is set in a prison dorm in which a soldier has been ordered to hang a prisoner the next morning by pulling the stool out from under him, but his conscience won’t let him do it. In this highly theatrical setting, he struggles to find a way out of killing, talks to his girlfriend on the phone, trying to find someone to pull strings and transfer him out. The various moral dilemmas he faces are portrayed quite well, but then this sequence veers off into a highly improbable resolution which rather ruined it for me. The third story: “The Birthday” also involves someone involved in military service, but this time he's on a three-day leave, the action centring around his meeting his fiancee and her family. Compared with the conscientious objector of the previous episode, this segment voices a more common attitude toward following military regulations, but once again the action feels a tad forced to me. Meanwhile, one would expect the final segment, “Kiss Me,” to build on and consolidate the previous three, but it rather fails to end the film with a satisfying conclusion, as sadly it’s the weakest of the four, involving as it does a 'big secret' which, by the time we get to realise what it is, the power of the premise is somewhat dissipated.

According to Amnesty International statistics, Iran was responsible for more than half the world’s recorded executions in 2017. The number has since dropped, but the country continues to kill its citizens at alarming rates. It’s significant that Rasoulof seems so unconcerned with charges against the film’s condemned criminals. They are humans, after all. Rather than agreeing with the soldiers, the film is a challenge to all those who passively accept their role in the machine, calling on them to question the sentences they carry out — as well as those levied against their neighbours. “I refuse to kill a living thing,” pronounces Darya in the last story (played by the director’s daughter, an interesting casting choice). But is she ready for the truth? Are any of us? The truth, the film clearly understands, is more complicated than its title: There is evil in the world, and it corrupts us when we don’t take a stand. What would we do in the characters’ shoes? Intriguing stuff.

4 out of 4 members found this review helpful.

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Here We Are

Warm-hearted study of autism and parent-child co-dependence

(Edit) 17/02/2022

Nir Bergman’s tender piece is a warm, multi-faceted look at how autism plays into parent-child co-dependence.

The set-up centres on dad Aharon , beautifully played by Shai Avivi, and his young adult son Uri (a thoroughly convincing Noah Imber). Aharon, separated from wife Tamara, has given up a lucrative career to become a full-time carer for Uri, who is on the autistic spectrum (it is never explicitly spelled out but it isn't necessary). Uri’s life is marked by unbreakable routines: watching Charlie Chaplin on a portable DVD player, eating only pasta stars, not stepping on the lines in the pavement, etc. The conflict comes when Tamara, realising that at some point Uri will need to fend for himself, enrols him in an assisted living facility. Although Uri is scared and reluctant to go, it is Aharon who cannot sanction the move and, convinced he is best placed to raise his son, the pair go on the run. The ensuing 'road trip' avoids the usual comedic cliches or schmaltzy father-son moments, and drawing inspiration from her own family, screenwriter Dana Idisis crafts an understated connection, keenly observing the realities of dealing with an autistic child, be it through the novel coping strategies employed to make life manageable, or simply by the need to stay quiet. It makes 'Rain Man' feel artificial and forced by comparison and that's quite a compliment to all involved, for Imber pays Uri as a rounded person, not just someone with a disability, and Avivi is superb as a patient, caring father who starts to realise the limits of his love. Whether it is his low-level but constantly on-guard state of alertness —his panic in a scene where Uri goes missing is palpable — or quietly delighting in his son laughing at City Lights, he gives 'Here We Are' a big heart without a trace of sentimentality, and that's quite something.

3 out of 3 members found this review helpful.

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Dune

Mesmerising - for an hour

(Edit) 08/02/2022

For an hour or so, 'Dune' is mesmerizing, throwing off seductive glints of treachery as it presents the tale of Paul Atreides (an admirably restrained Timothée Chalamet), the gifted scion of the House Atreides, whose father is leading what looks to be an opportunity, though one that’s fraught with peril. This first section draws us into Herbert's world slowly but successfully, and hopefully will get many scurrying back to the books. There’s also much to admire in Patrice Vermette’s production design, particularly the Zen elegance of the aristocratic Atreides household on their beautiful oceanic home planet of Caladan and the Arrakis stronghold Arrakeen, a sprawling structure that combines ancient Egyptian and Aztec influences. The costumes by Jacqueline West and Robert Morgan also are full of eye-catching touches, from the gauzy gowns of Paul's mother Jessica and other women billowing in the desert wind to the utilitarian body-cooling “stillsuit” developed by the Fremen for survival in the desert, whilst the techy stuff is also really good, notably the giant Harkonnen harvesters raking the sands like desert beetles as monstrous sandworms tunnel up to the surface to swallow everything in their path, and the splendid wasp-winged choppers known as ornithopters, buzzing through the skies.

BUT. What the film doesn’t do is shape Herbert’s intricate world-building into anything really meaningful. For the history and complex societal structure that are integral to the author’s vision are condensed into a blur, cramping the mythology, whilst the layers of political, religious, ecological and technological allegory that give the novel such exalted status get mulched in a terribly thin, superficial screenplay (have these people actually read it all? or are they simply not clever enough to transfer it to screen?) - far too much of the dialogue could have been written by George Lucas, which is fine if you're 12 years old but I was hoping for so much more. Meanwhile, far, far too much of the latter stages of the film are dominated by Star Wars / James Bond style chase scenes which are both predictable and mind-numbingly tedious, whilst the sadly inevitable Lord of the Rings style portentous, subtle-as-a-flying-mallet score is among the most intrusive I've heard for many a moon. Only part one, of course, so jury out, and enough of interest to send me back for more, but if it's going to be more of the same then I'm afraid I'll probably be sensing a missed opportunity here.

2 out of 2 members found this review helpful.

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The Nest

Family horror show without ghosts

(Edit) 02/02/2022

This one's got all the trappings of a horror film - a cavernous old manor in the Surrey countryside with heavy wood panelling and enough space for a family of four to get lost inside it. And indeed, the place immediately creeps out Benjamin the younger of the two children, who seeks sanctuary with his older teenage sister Samantha at night until she kicks him out, then sprints through the darkened hallways to his room like something’s going to drag him off into the shadows if he’s not fast enough. But the horror on show is of an altogether different kind namely, the slow implosion of a family unit. And added to the mix is a horse, Richmond, a gorgeous black beast who just isn’t the same after he’s transported from New York to England - the scenes involving the horse and owner Allison (the superb Carrie Coon) are perhaps the film's strongest, although all four of the family members experience their own personal miseries.

Jude Law's Rory is a fast-talking commodities broker with a taste for luxuries he can’t afford (it’s the ’80s) and has been maintaining this facade for so long that he can't even be honest with himself about it, let alone anyone else. Yet Allison doesn’t confront Rory often, having served as co-conspirator and enabler in her husband’s games for a while now, but the way that Allison hoards and hides cash hints at how many times they’ve flamed out before and how she expects things to end up now. They’re well- matched as two people who’ve been drained by years of pretending to be something they’re not, chasing a dream they couldn’t entirely articulate, although Coon's performance for me is much the stronger. As a critique of a decade of consumerism, 'The Nest' is a little thin and predictable, but as a fable of familial dysfunction, it’s resonant and not a little frightening, without a ghost in sight.

4 out of 5 members found this review helpful.

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The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão

Heartbreaking period family saga

(Edit) 23/01/2022

Karim Aïnouz’s heartbreaking period family saga based in midcentury Rio de Janeiro is a real gem, with pointed feminist politics and sharp social truths neatly interwoven into an absorbing tale of two sisters separated for decades by deceit and shame. Stylistically it's also wonderful, being saturated in sound, music and colour to match its depth of feeling. Its length, at over two hours, may well put some people off, but I found it all thoroughly gripping, mainly because of the wonderful performances from the two leads - Carol Duarte as the initially stoic but steadily unhinged Eurídice and Julia Stockler as her initially tempestuous but progressively more zenlike elder sister Guida (although the supporting cast is also very strong). It's certainly not very subtle: the aching tragedy and dramatic irony of the sisters' situation is laid on with a trowel, assisted greatly by Benedikt Schiefer’s score — itself supported with evocatively chosen classical piano pieces by Chopin and Liszt. A few scenes stand out as worthy of some of the great directors: the lush, surreal opening scene immediately transports us into the sisters' bond and fears of separation, whilst by contrast Euridice's wedding night is shockingly explicit. And one superbly choreographed set piece, seeing the sisters miss each other by seconds in a Rio cafe, is totally agonising in a manner worthy of Thomas Hardy, and that's the highest compliment I can think of. But the film isn’t just a symphony of misery, with many flashes of joy and comradeship as Guida builds a new life for herself in Brazil’s slums, with wily, kindly prostitute Filomena (Bárbara Santos) as her new guardian angel; she may weather harder knocks than her sister, but finds her own kind of happiness. In this sense, Aïnouz has made both a testament to the resilience of women in a society stacked against them — there are no good men to be found in its vision of patriarchal oppression — and a moving celebration of the families we create when the ones we’re born into fall away. And just when you think you can't get any more heart-rending scenes, a final act involving 89-year-old Brazilian grande dame Fernanda Montenegro gathers all the film’s loose strands of feeling to powerful effect. Beautiful filmaking.

0 out of 1 members found this review helpful.

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Herself

Warmth and can-do spirit meets social realist hardship

(Edit) 22/01/2022

Phyllida Lloyd’s strong third film is part social-realism part heartwarmer, with echoes of Leigh or Loach but carefully avoiding all-out desolation. And in Clare Dunne the film has an exceptional female lead, one who spearheads the action superbly with a knife-edge performance of raw ferocity and fragility as Sandra, who's living with the fallout from leaving her violent husband, Gary.

The brutal altercation that prompts this escape is witnessed by one of her daughters just as the other runs to the corner shop with a note for the owner to call the Guards. Internal flashbacks of this horrific moment will replay in Sandra’s mind, to the panic-stricken thumping of blood pumping in her ears, at several points as its shockwaves persist. Cinematographer Tom Comerford’s initially shaky, roaming camerawork speaks to her petrified state of mind as daily life – the school run, working two jobs and sticking to weekend visits with dad – must go on, even if she and the girls are forced to live in an airport hotel. All this is very well-handled by Lloyd, thanks in large part to the tremendous performances given by Ruby Rose O’Hara and Molly McCann as the young siblings. The film also touches on the extent to which the children of a broken home are used as pawns by sparring exes and somewhat overlooked by a court system short of both humanity and a grip on reality. “Was there a reason you didn’t leave sooner?” a tone-deaf judge will ask late on in the film, demonstrating a lack of compassion and understanding of Sandra’s experience, and by extension the experience of many more.

After a rather implausible plot development involving a gift of land by Peggy (a wonderfully cantankerous, waspish Harriet Walter, who swiftly mellows), Herself focuses more on can-do spirit than it does on kitchen-sink hardship. And here lies the film's basic problem, for the the former is a lot less convincing than the latter, with the result that the film does feel rather off-balance dramatically. And then in the last 10 minutes or so, about three films’ worth of plot hit at once which make the picture’s ending a rushed feel that’s rather unsatisfying. It’s not that we want things to be harder for Sandra, quite the contrary, but her challenges—particularly her emotional conflicts—might have been explored in a little more depth.

Even so, Dunne—who has performed in several of Lloyd’s stage productions—gives plenty of dimension to Sandra’s particular brand of anxiety, optimism and determination. The sudden acknowledgement that a person you once loved doesn’t exist anymore can knock the wind out of you, and Dunne captures that breathless free fall beautifully. Well worth a look.

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Limbo

Humane, bittersweet portrayal of asylum-seekers in exile

(Edit) 13/12/2021

This one's a bleakly comic drama (definitely more drama than comedy, although the humour is never far away) about a group of misfit asylum-seekers stranded in surreal exile in a remote Scottish backwater town. Writer-director Ben Sharrock displays a winning flair for small observational detail and is generally successful at casting a refreshingly humane eye on a politically contentious topic that is often sensationalised by the media. A visually stunning landscape of treeless hills, deserted roads, wide-open sky and rocky coastline, the unnamed island location of Limbo is a key character in the story, serving both a dramatic and psychological function.

The episodic plot of Limbo centres on Omar (Amir El-Masry), a refugee from war-torn Syria, as he and the other migrants wait to hear whether the British government will grant them asylum. Omar shares a dingy cottage with the eccentric Afghani Farhad and two bickering brothers from West Africa. A skilled oud player in his past life, Omar now seems too depressed for music, haunted by guilt over the family he abandoned, especially older brother Nabil (Kais Nashif), who stayed behind to fight in Syria’s civil war - the scenes depicting the brief communication with his parents from a callbox are very powerful indeed.

Drawing on his personal experiences of living in the Middle East, including working in refugee camps, Sharrock depicts the migrant experience with a refreshingly light touch, although some of the more surreal elements, notably the absurd “cultural awareness” lessons hosted by their well-meaning hosts, don't really come off, and it strains credulity to believe that the casual racist abuse directed at these outsiders by the island’s young white natives quickly dissolves into mutual respect, as does a running joke in which Sharrock paints his refugee protagonists as obsessive fans of kitsch American and European pop culture.

Limbo takes a more serious turn in its latter stages, when painful secrets and unexpected tragedies darken the otherwise largely playful mood, as does a climatic surreal scene reconnecting Omar with his brother. This tonal shift is a brave one, but still jars a little, with Sharrock grasping at a profundity that is a little beyond his reach here, and in doing so also risks giving in to a sentimentalised melodrama that he has skilfully avoided up to this point. A pity also that a decision to just let the music speak for itself until the very end is denied us as Omar's playing gets absorbed into the vacuous drone soundtrack. Nevertheless, all in all a very watchable, thought-provoking piece.

3 out of 4 members found this review helpful.
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