Benedict Cumberbatch

Review: The Imitation Game

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The Imitation Game

The Pitch: Turing tested.

The Review: It might seem difficult to imagine for anyone under the age of thirty, but we are only in the second generation of home computer users. Computers themselves evolve at a phenomenal rate – my phone now has over 65,000 times the memory of my first home computer – but anyone my age or older will remember their first encounter with a computer. Having studied computing at both school and university, I’ve been taught by people who’d used punched cards, paper tape and computers the size of rooms. They were only one generation removed from the great thinkers of the development of computing, many of whom were required to hone their skills in the service of war and whose contribution to victory may have been as significant as any armoured division or fleet of boats. Alan Turing gave us one of the defining statements around computing in his Turing test; the idea that a truly artificially intelligent machine would be indistinguishable from a person if you only saw what they said (and the idea from which the film’s title is derived). He also helped to refine the bombe machine which was critical to decoding the German intelligence encoded via their Enigma devices, and this new British film attempts to decode the enigma of Turing himself; both the brilliant mind struggling in a public setting and the private man whose secrets would ultimately see him pay a very high price.

There is a fantastically interesting story to be told about the work that the codebreakers at Bletchley Park did during the Second World War, but Morten Tyldum’s film is afraid to explore it in any great depth. Without spoiling too much – because there’s actually very little to spoil and I will presume you know who won the Second World War – the entirety of the main plot of the film consists of:

  • man says he can build machine which he doesn’t explain, but is covered in dials so looks impressive
  • man builds machine
  • people tell him machine doesn’t work
  • man turns on machine
  • man calibrates machine
  • machine works

The closest analogy would be a sports movie; different sports movies go into various levels of detail regarding the mechanics of their sport, but must eventually put that aside and engage you in the thrill of their pastime. Not only does The Imitation Game fail desperately to understand any interesting aspect of the code breaking mechanics but it crucially also fails for the most part to make the actual act of cracking the codes tense or dramatic. Wondering if your vacuum cleaner will work when you turn it on, then discovering that it does with a bit of fiddling, does not make for entertainment or drama and The Imitation Game fails to achieve anything more; simply inserting shots of war-torn Europe feels critically disconnected and does nothing to elevate the stakes. That’s all the more frustrating when Tyldum’s previous film, Headhunters, did a great job of maintaining tension despite some wild fluctuations in tone.

Alongside that sits the issue of the film attempting to deal with Turing’s closeted homosexuality. The structure of the film sees us flashing between three time frames, starting with Turing under suspicion from the police after the war when his house is burgled, and flashing back to his school days and his first burgeoning relationship with a school friend. The repeated skipping between time frames feels laboured at times, and it takes an eternity to get to anything approaching forward momentum in any of the story strands. Tyldum also struggles to make some of the developments in the script feel genuine, and with regard to Turing’s sexuality the school scenes are the only ones that come across believably, rather than feeling melodramatic and forced. Both of the later time periods suffer from occasional cheap innuendo and a reluctance to tackle anything head on; it’s understandable given the time period that none of these issues were addressed in public until Turing’s arrest, but the film seems reluctant to address them in private either. It’s not just in those areas that notes in the film ring false; there are scenes of Turing running, which feel oddly placed and unlikely, yet Turing in real life ran marathons and was an ultra-distance runner.

There is one big area in which The Imitation Game succeeds, and that’s in the quality of the acting. Benedict Cumberbatch gets the meatiest role as Turing, and his track record for playing super-intelligent social outcasts of different varieties sees him unsurprisingly excel with another nuanced performance. His performance is well mirrored by Alex Lawther who portrays Turing at school age, and complemented by one of Keira Knightley’s strongest turns in years as the woman who matches him intellectually and understands him most closely. The likes of Mark Strong and Charles Dance do well in roles that don’t exactly stretch, but it’s Matthew Goode who brings balance and shading to the central ensemble and adds both notes of conflict and sympathy while remaining grounded in a consistent character. It’s right that the achievements of British code breakers should be celebrated in film, after so many botched attempts in the past, and if The Imitation Game gets details wrong and blends characters then its attempts to mythologise its characters and their endeavours are still laudable to a point. Let’s be honest, when The Social Network took a similar approach it worked very effectively, but David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin magnified the rough edges of their characters to almost cartoonish levels. Despite that, their film never shied away from their inherent flaws or human failings of their protagonists. The Imitation Game seeks to eulogise those who did such good work, but never gets under the skin of the people it’s examining, and when it also fails to draw you in on a basic storytelling level, it seems that the life of Alan Turing is one code that will remain cinematically unbroken for now.

Why see it at the cinema: There are a few brief cutaways to battle scenes, but in general it’s curiously uncinematic in its filming. What it did do at the screening I was at was to generate more well-placed and well-observed middle-class tutting and indignation than any film I can remember, which actually served to raise my enjoyment of the film.

I was almost tempted to suggest that you shouldn’t actually watch the film in the cinema; before I take leave of my senses completely, can I just suggest that if you’re in the vicinity of Milton Keynes you take the opportunity to visit both Bletchley Park and the currently separate National Museum Of Computing? Both will provide much greater and more genuine insight into the fascinating story of this particular war effort.

What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate sex references. These include use of the word penis and a joke about blowjobs; nothing that’s going to shock your average 11 year old.

My cinema experience: Because I’m clearly insane, after watching What We Do In The Shadows in Stevenage I discovered there was a late showing of The Imitation Game at the Abbeygate in Bury St. Edmunds, so drove an hour and a half to catch this while I had the chance. A trip to the Abbeygate is always worth it, and I had time for a blonde beer in the bar and a quick browse on the web on my iPhone before taking up my favourite seat in screen 1. Hopefully the success of this well attended screening might see a few more later shows popping up at the Abbeygate.

The Score: 5/10

Review: Star Trek Into Darkness 3D

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Star Trek Into DarknessThe Pitch: Boldly stalling where no one has stalled before…

The Review: In 2009, a bold new vision for one of sci-fi’s most established franchises warped onto our cinema screens, with enough lens flare to blind Galileo and with a cocksure young cast breathing new life into established roles. Four years on, and more time has elapsed since than the original Kirk and Spock even managed of their five year mission, but Starfleet’s most inexperienced crew – in Starfleet’s newest and most expensive iShip – are still kicking their heels, picking up the odd mission to exploding volcanoes where they can, but still waiting for an extended mission to truly test their talents. With their off-screen leader about to defect to the Dark Side, this could conceivably be the last big-screen adventure under the current leadership, so you’d hope that a four year gap would have given writers Bob Orci, Alex Kurtzmann and Damon Lindelof chance to imagine a truly epic adventure, giving the cast chance to take their old roles in new directions and to make the most of the opportunity that the success of their reboot had given them. If that’s what you were hoping, prepare to be sorely disappointed.

Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) Mark 2 might have spent a year serving with each other, but their team work still leaves a little to be desired. After a mission to a primitive planet goes somewhat awry and the Prime Directive is broken, Kirk finds his captaincy removed and Spock reassigned. But when the Federation comes under attack seemingly from one of its own, a trip to the Klingon homeworld reunites the feuding officers and sets Kirk on a collision course with the powerful, er, John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). It’s a mission which will test Kirk and Spock’s loyalty, sense of honour and occasionally some of their other crew members as well, but only occasionally. To say any more would deprive you of the opportunity to feel angry and disappointed when you watch it for yourself spoil the major plot twists the film has tried to keep up its sleeve for the past two years.

Much of the joy that resided after the first film was the sense of potential of a universe where literally anything was now possible, where writers seemed willing to take risks, and where rules seem made to be broken. So to see the second film in the series squander that potential so ruthlessly is desperately disappointing, the plot an amalgam of regurgitated elements from at least three different Star Trek TV or film series and the direction based simply on generating enough momentum to attempt to skirt over the massive plot holes. There was a feeling when Star Trek: Enterprise ended that after nearly 700 episodes, Trek might have finally run out of ideas; that’s not only a fault of poor writers, it’s blatantly untrue as the last season of Enterprise was packed full of interesting stories using the wealth of established worlds the series had created (but by then everyone had stopped watching anyway). To see the Klingons reduced to faceless cyphers in service of a hopelessly rehashed plot does show that this creative team cares little about motivations and even less about the intelligence of its viewers. It also suggests that the trilogy of writers have run out of ideas after precisely one film, never mind 700 episodes, and in attempting to pointlessly honour what’s come before – when the whole point was that this crew no longer needed to – the narrative simply disappears up its own impulse engine in the most convoluted and uninteresting way possible.

Most of the science of the film is written by idiots who would likely electrocute themselves if required to rewire a plug. To a certain extent, the previous film suffered from the same problem, but the characters and plotting were compelling enough that one could feel inclined not to pay that a huge amount of attention. With the plot running in dull circles, the characters are now poorly served: Cumberbatch’s Harrison is all growl and no menace but still acts everyone else (including poor Chris Pine) off the screen, Peter Weller’s stern admiral fares little better and Alice Eve is now infamously misogynised by the shot in her underwear, adding little else of interest. None of the Enterprise crew develops in any way or makes any more of an impression than last time around, most of the action set pieces are throwbacks to earlier movies (from Generations to Star Trek itself) and the plot grinds any attempts at believability into a literal magic sprinkling dust with which the film is liberally covered. About the only element I can offer unreserved praise for is Michael Giacchino’s score; a couple of the action set pieces are exciting, if lifted from earlier films, but any sense of jeopardy goes out the window very early on. There’s a great cast at the service of any other director who’s like to take up the reins (hint, hint) but for now I’m fearful that if left unchecked, J.J. Abrams might be about to ruin another major franchise – and when most people thought George Lucas had fair ruined that one already, I fear for the state of cinematic sci-fi in years to come if this is the best we’re capable of.

Why see it at the cinema: Sure, the little bits of whatever that blue stuff is in the warp trail sure do look pretty, and on the cinema screen you should be able to tell the current London landmarks from the fake new ones, but given that this was partly filmed with IMAX cameras everything after the prologue feels remarkably small scale.

Why see it in 3D: For the love of Kahless, just don’t. Into Darkness isn’t just a subtitle, it’s incredibly descriptive, and when the shots are edited for 2D and filmed in darkness, wearing the indoor sunglasses is an incredibly frustrating experience, to the point where I took mine off if all of the characters were in the foreground. See it in 2D only.

What about the rating: Rated 12A for moderate violence and threat. A mite swearier than most previous Treks (possibly excepting the first two Next Gen efforts), this is fairly standard action fare and anyone who can normally cope with a 12A should have relatively few problems here.

My cinema experience: A pretty packed Saturday morning showing at the Cineworld in Bury St. Edmunds. I managed to arrive around 25 minutes after the advertised start time, by which time the prologue was well under way; thankfully, having seen it before The Hobbit last year, I missed nothing. A massive queue at the ticket machine caused me to collect my ticket at the concessions counter (note to all Cineworld staff everywhere: my Unlimited card might be nearly as old as you are, but it still swipes fine in every one of your multiplexes). A packed audience (packed for a Saturday morning, anyway) sat largely silently through the movie which had little in the way of projection or sound issues, other than the 3D issues which were no fault of the cinema.

The Score: 4/10

Wreckers: An Interview With Dictynna Hood

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You might recall an article I wrote last year about a film that had been made in my own village last year, called Wreckers, starring Claire Foy and Benedict Cumberbatch. I wrote a review, as well as a piece on how I was Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film, long before this blog was a glint in the milkman’s eye, but I also took the opportunity to conduct an interview with the writer and director, Dictynna Hood.

The interview took place at a local tea shop, where we had some delightful tea and scones, and I recorded a forty minute interview on my iPhone, which came out surprisingly well. Typing it back now has been a strange experience – particularly listening to the clanking and bustling going on in the rest of the tea shop – and Dictynna was a very open and friendly interviewee for my first such attempt, for which I must say a big thank you. We covered a wide variety of topics, everything from the films of Michael Haneke to Doctor Who, but it’s the cinematic impact and benefits that I’m most interested in, so what’s here are my questions specifically around that subject, and the film in general.

The film is showing tonight and tomorrow night (24th / 25th April) at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, and tonight there will be an opportunity to ask Dictynna your own questions. Hopefully if you’re in the area you’ll be able to make it, and enjoy both the film and the Q & A as much as I did.

When you set out to make Wreckers, was the intention to get it into cinemas or was it just an extension of the short films you’d made previously?

I was definitely thinking of it for cinemas, knowing that we’re selling to the BBC and abroad it will also be mainly TV sales, but we definitely wanted the cinema release. Claire Foy is also very filmic; she has this quality that you can just watch her. She does a lot of watching, not speaking, in the film and I think holds the screen fantastically, which is one of the reasons it’s gone into the cinema. In the cinema, you can also see the subtlety of the performances more clearly, which gets lost a little on TV when you’re more focused on the plot.

What was it that decided you to set it in a village specifically? Was it more plot driven or was it about the film economics?

A little of both, really. It’s very contained, and while there’s a budgetary reason for that people have mentioned at Q & As that they saw that containment as a blessing. There were a lot of people who helped with the production of the film who’ve ended up being cut; nothing to do with them or their performance, but that was all to do with keeping that contained feeling. The village in the film isn’t a literal reflection of the real village itself, or the village I grew up in, but it’s important that there’s that small space with a very large area around it.

I had a fascination with the Fens for a long time; I also had a look at the West Country, and took a lot of pictures, but it somehow didn’t feel right. I had a book of Fenland stories which was inspirational. I was looking for a village that wasn’t too twee or precious. A friend suggested looking in the Isleham area, and when I went to the village I found the church open and the layout of the village was immediately appealing. I’d also looked at Norfolk, but the extreme landscape on the Fens was just so appealing.

I understand you studied in Cambridge; was that where the love affair with the area came from originally?

No, I think it actually came from the book of stories originally, but it wasn’t something that it particularly occurred from my studying. I’d been on a biking holiday with my sister on the Fens when I was younger, but it didn’t capture me then, only later. I’d still love to do more filming in the area in the future, possibly getting on the water, or exploring the farming and the legends. I do think it’s one of the most extreme landscapes in the UK, and it gets away from all the murder mystery and period drama feel that you normally associate with the countryside.

Although I live in the village, I wasn’t aware of who you had in the film until after you’d finished filming. How did you put a cast like that together?

We cast them because we thought they were a cracking cast; as it turns out, everyone else seems to have thought that as well! They were fantastic, and obviously that has helped the film enormously. Their profile has increased since we filmed, and we were very lucky to get them all, especially given how especially Benedict’s profile has soared since. He makes David’s character very ambiguous, with a more straightforward performance the film would have taken a very different turn, and potentially been less interesting for it.

Reading interviews with him, he seems to be in it very much for the craft rather than the attention. How did he come across when filming?

My impression is that he loves to work, and that’s why he did the film, as he had a gap in his schedule. I read in one of his interviews that he wanted to follow the James McAvoy path, mixing blockbusters with films like this, but his schedule actually made finishing the film rather complicated.

When did you actually film? Was it a couple of years ago?

It was 2009, and it’s actually turned out to be a real help that it’s taken a while to put together, in terms of the profile of the cast and where they are now, but at the time it didn’t it didn’t feel like that, it felt like, “why can’t we just finish this bloody thing!”

I need to be careful, I’m technically a PG blog!

But no, everything about it felt wonderful in the end, for such a small production.

How do you go about getting a film into something like the London Film Festival [the film played at LFF in 2011]? Is it a fairly lengthy, tortuous process?

When we showed it to our cast and crew on a big screen for the first time we realised the film had a real pull in the cinema.  Then we hosted a couple of screenings for industry folks and got Artificial Eye our distributor on board at that point which no doubt helped. We invited one of the  programmers for the London Film Festival to an industry screening, it’s certainly better if a programmer can see your film big screen. 

Do you think that British film is becoming confined to the festivals? It seems harder to get distribution for British films these days.

We had very realistic expectations for our film and it’s already gone beyond those expectations. I saw a lot of bold films at the London Film Festival which probably won’t get a release, but I’m not sure what the answer is; maybe more the French style of distribution. There’s a lot more film clubs in villages these days, which does open up more opportunities for folks to see films on the big screen. From a filmmaker’s perspective it does help enormously if you can cast people more recognisable to a wider audience, but it’s a shame if you have to do that at all times.

Has Wreckers turned out pretty much how you imagined it?

We realised on day three that we couldn’t shoot our storyboard, so we had to work out quickly how to capture the feeling we were after, happily we’d had a lot of discussion during pre-production about the grammar and the atmosphere of the film and how to maintain that even if shooting not exactly as planned.  Even if you’re Hitchcock or Kubrick, as soon as you cast it the film becomes something different, as actors embody the characters and make them their own. The key as a director is to hold on to the core ideas and the core feeling of the film and to create around that.   It’s was Annemarie’s [Lean-Vercoe,director of photography] first or second feature, and I couldn’t have done it without her, but all of the crew were magnificent.

What’s next for you, now that Wreckers has been a success and gotten into cinemas?

I’m exploring what to do next; we’ve got a story about a big family gathering where the parents are ageing hippies, and we’ve got a wonderfully twisted rom-com.   I want to get on and direct more, but you have to make sure that the script is a match, and I guess the joy of writing is that you know your script is a match! [laughs]

Dictynna Hood, thank you very much.

Wreckers is also available on DVD now from all good stockists.

Review: Wreckers

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The Pitch: The true village people.

The Review: If you were attempting to take a snapshot of British life from the output of our film industry, you might think that we’re stuck somewhere between a sumptuous costume drama, a brutal gangland thriller or a Richard Curtis comedy. Unless you’re Mr Darcy, Danny Dyer or Dawn French, you may not find these to be the most realistic or relatable portrayals of the core of British society. As for an understanding of village life, The Archers or Emmerdale are the closest that popular culture has come to understanding what makes a village tick, but now writer / director D R Hood has given us her insight into the lives of villagers and the secrets hidden behind the calm façade of life in the country.

Dawn and David (Claire Foy and Benedict Cumberbatch) are attempting to make a life for themselves in the country, in the village where David grew up. It seems the perfect couple have found the perfect home, but the arrival on the scene of David’s brother Nick (Shaun Evans) opens up a few closets with skeletons in, and starts to sow a small seed of doubt in Dawn’s mind. Having moved back to the village to start a family, Dawn begins to wonder if David is really the man she thought he was, especially as previously unknown details about the brothers’ childhood come to light. As Dawn finds herself drawn closer to Nick, their relationships become increasingly strained and Dawn finds herself faced with difficult decisions.

Wreckers is, first and foremost, an actor’s film, but it never descends to the level of melodrama, the performances all marked out in subtle shades rather than broad strokes. Claire Foy is at the heart of the film, and she captures perfectly the sense of conflict as she struggles to come to terms with what she’s learning. Opposite her, Benedict Cumberbatch is full of simmering tension and later controlled rage, hidden so far beneath the surface that it would be undetectable in a lesser actor. Shaun Evans completes the central trio, and while his performance isn’t quite the match for subtlety of his co-stars, his in-your-face manner a suitable counterpoint to the more understated performances of the two leads.

The other star of Wreckers is the scenery, the East Anglian countryside being used very effectively not only to emphasise the increasing isolation of the characters but also to give contrast to the lives they’re leading. There’s an almost dream-like quality to some of the photography, and the combination of this and the score from Andrew Lovett help to emphasise the placid nature of the surroundings, which only serves to give more edge to the unfolding drama. The story itself is a little linear, but that doesn’t detract from the overall effect, and there’s a pleasing sense of ambiguity around the ending. While Wreckers might capture the scenery and the atmosphere of village life, its moral dilemmas are somewhat more universal, but it’s worth catching for the combination of great actors working close to the top of their game in quintessentially English settings, and is a refreshingly different slant on British life without the need for British stereotypes.

Why see it at the cinema: The combination of the beautiful scenery and the intimate drama will work best on the big screen; the countryside scenes are almost hypnotic at times but the camera gets in close to the actors, and the cinema screen will capture every intimate glance and nuanced gesture.

The Score: 8/10

Wreckers: A Local Film For Local People

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What did I ever do to you, eh?

Ever wanted to be famous? Judging by the proliferation of TV talent shows clogging our screens, there’s quite a number of people who’d like to be discovered, for singing or dancing or even dog-wrangling, and become just famous enough that they can perpetuate that by being sent to the land of the convicts to eat various marsupial genitalia while being mocked by slightly receding Geordies. I’m not sure I’ve ever had that compulsion, but it was put to the test a couple of years ago when the village where I now live became the setting for a feature film.

While I’ve been a lifelong fan of film, and that love has grown to almost obsessive proportions in the past few years, it’s what’s on the screen that’s always interested me. I’ve certainly come to question the artistic decisions of a few writers and directors over the years, but I’m not sure the creative urge has ever burned that brightly within me, nor for that matter have I ever been a fan of the spotlight. Even at school, I was quite content to take on the backstage roles and to allow others to get their lights out from under bushels; and although one of my other hobbies has always been singing, I’ve always been more comfortable taking a role in the choir rather than out front singing solos. But moving to the village allowed me to take on another role, that of choir master of the choir at the village church, and it’s ideal in the sense that the back of your head gets more attention from the congregation or audience than your face ever does. Few roles offer such power and such anonymity in the realm of artistic endeavour.

But it was through the church music that I first came into contact with an actual film in production, back when The Movie Evangelist was just a glint in the milkman’s eye. I had an e-mail from the writer and director of the film, a lady by the name of Dictynna Hood, and she’d been scouting for a village to use in her first full-length feature film. As there were potentially scenes in the church and involving two of the characters singing in the choir, I was involved in discussions about the possibility of using the choir on film. No sooner had my visions begun of seeing my name in lights – admittedly very tiny ones at the end of some credits – than the decision was made to go with a choir more suitable to the filming process: in other words much better singers than us and people who could be subjected to the vagaries of filming schedules more easily.

When the actual filming happened, it all pretty much passed me by. I was aware that something was happening, by the fact that the village pub had suddenly developed blacked out windows, but I can recall neither seeing a film star or anyone that looked like they might be a director of photography, a key grip or even a best boy. Consequently I thought little more about it until earlier this year, word came through to the village that the film was finally nearing completion, after a duration by no means uncommon in the world of movies, and that it was hoped to gain a cinema release later in the year. I also discovered at this point that the film had actual proper famous people in it, including Claire Foy and Benedict Cumberbatch.

How had I missed that? Had it been kept secret to avoid hordes of screaming Cumberbatchites swamping the filming? Admittedly this was pre-Sherlock, before he became a household name (and any household, surely, would be thrilled to have such a fantastic name, packed full of rich consonants and exciting syllables), but he’d still been in Atonement, The Other Boleyn Girl and Starter For 10 when he came filming, and I’m not saying the village isn’t exciting, but I’ve known people who’ll come out for the opening of a bottle of pop, never mind somebody famous. Or maybe I was just off in the cinema, taking in big screen dramas while a smaller one was unfolding right on my own doorstep. But when the news came in that there’d be a screening in the village of the film before it went to cinemas, it felt like too good an opportunity to pass up.

Which is how I found myself conducting my first actual interview, in a quaint little tea room in the next village, on a cold afternoon in November. I had engineered opportunities to talk to two other directors last year, one of whom was Mark Cousins, whose 15 part epic The Story Of Film sits unwatched on my Sky+ box as we speak, desperately waiting for me to find time to watch it. So the fact that this was actually coming to me seemed too good an opportunity to miss, and Dictynna and I enjoyed a cream tea, while talking about everything from the films of Michael Haneke to whether Benedict would make a good Doctor Who. (I’m still so busy that a month later, I still haven’t typed it up, and I’m even sat writing this on my iPhone on a train to London. But at least it’s in the can. Or the voice memos. Or something.)

The screening that followed that evening was a real triumph for the power of cinema to bring people together, and marked the first time that I’ve attended an advanced screening where the director brought crisps and home-made cakes for the audience. (I genuinely hope it’s not the last time.) Sadly, there was nowhere in the village with suitable facilities to hold the screening, but the nearest town has a hall where they hold a monthly cinema club with a projector and a big screen. Which I also hadn’t heard of. But that evening, over 100 villagers and a few curious members of the film club packed the hall to see an advanced screening of Wreckers.

It's got seats and a screen. That makes it a cinema in my book.

It took me around ten minutes to actually be able to focus on the film itself. I’ve seen a few films where I’ve known the landmarks, and it does give a slightly eerie sense when watching the film; if you’ve ever seen London landmarks featured in a film and walked those streets, you’ll have some understanding of the principle. I also saw another British film recently, Weekend, which was filmed on the streets of Nottingham, and which caused me to have a few moments of recognition which took me out of the film slightly, having worked there for two years. But this is nothing to the effect of watching a film made on the very small streets of a village that’s been your home for the past four years, not least because film geography and actual geography can be two different things.

Take, for example, the church. There’s a number of scenes set both inside and outside the church, and on two occasions characters have a conversation outside the porch, then turn and walk off through the trees to their houses. Here’s a shot of the porch itself:

They come out of the doors, and walk off through the trees on the left. With me so far?

There are trees to the left of the porch, which the characters wander through on their way home. And here’s a shot of exactly what’s through those trees:

Yes, through the trees is not a leafy, tree-lined path, but a walled churchyard from which the only escape is the gate opposite the porch, in completely the other direction. The temptation to stand up and to shout at the screen “WHERE ARE YOU GOING?!?!” was one that I barely resisted. Similarly, walking to your house through fields which are not connected, or walking to the school which appears to be in another village entirely in real life, were all disconcerting reminders that what we see on screen is a construct, and only as real as our imaginations, a point which Dictynna attempted to remind the audience of before the film.

The reaction afterwards was mixed, although I firmly believe that was the audience rather than the film. Every film needs to find its own audience, and Wreckers rather had one thrust upon it rather than naturally finding its own, but it was at least a lovely and heartfelt gesture to reward the patience of those that gave their time to its making. There is, I’m sure, some irony in the difference between the fictional village and its hotbed of infidelity and secrets, and the warm, open welcome which the actual villagers provided, but at least that generosity has been repaid in kind.

And as for me? Anyone who’s read this blog before may recall that I’ve already had one inanimate object I’d come into contact with become more famous than me; I have a music stand in church which I use when conducting, and that stand was used by the visiting choir’s director. It is in the film for around two seconds by my estimation, but it’s there on screen. If you look really closely.

And the award for Best Supporting Furniture goes to...

So now, even my own music stand is more famous than I am. On reflection, It’s a good job I don’t like the taste of kangaroo testicles.

Cambridge Film Festival Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

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The Pitch: Dobby, King George VI, Dumbledore’s brother, Jim Gordon. The Elephant Man and Sherlock can barely get a look in…

The Review: Ten years ago, Gary Oldman was a different man. One of the best actors of his generation, but famed for disappearing into his roles and for not making easy choices, he had a certain familiarity to popcorn audiences for the likes of Leon and The Fifth Element, but may not have been a household name. Big roles in the Harry Potter and Batman franchises have sorted that out, but he’s always been able to retain the varied qualities that helped him to stand out in his less familiar roles. But it’s those qualities that undoubtedly caused the producers at Working Title to conclude a six month search by landing on his name, and also realising that they couldn’t make the film without him. The most successful remakes are able to  make you forget that there was ever a previous incarnation, and Alec Guinness’ boots are some big ones to hide.

The Seventies Smiley story was rightly lauded for the strong cast and the faithfulness of its adaptation, so once the challenge of finding a lead has been overcome the next is to find a way of condensing the material that fed a six hour TV series into a reasonable length. The first surprise is that Tomas Alfredson and his editor have somehow condensed this into two hours; the second is the leisurely pace at which the film seems to start, almost as if it’s not concerned with getting through the material in the prescribed running time. But it’s actually more measured than leisurely, the tone able to shift seamlessly and deliver drama and tension from even the most underplayed scenes.

Having one of the best casts in, frankly, ever also manages to keep your attention through every twist and turn of the plot. There’s a lot of names on the poster, but everyone steps up and delivers top-notch performances. Worthy of particular mention are those outside the Circus’ top tier, and Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch continue what should be upward trends in their career paths. Mark Strong, Toby Jones, John Hurt and Colin Firth also don’t disappoint, and the likes of Stephen Graham and Kathy Burke also shine enough in smaller roles that they should probably be disappointed not to get their names on the poster. Oldman, of course, glides through the middle of it all, giving a masterfully subtle performance that deserves attention when awards start to be handed out.

The actors having set the bar, pretty much every other department steps up to meet it. From the costume and production design to the photography and editing, quality oozes out of every frame, and Alfredson succeeds in glueing your eyes to the screen  for every second, and manages to throw in as many indelible images as he did in his stellar vampire effort, Let The Right One In. There’s a surprising sprinkling of humour and a definite helping of passion thrown into the mix, which help to leaven the more serious and studious moments. The music is also well worth a mention, regular Almodovar composer Alberto Iglesias turning in a score which evokes just the right mood and has enough echoes of previous spy scores without feeling too referential or reverential, and the use of music itself not only drives key plot points but also adds dramatic weight to key scenes, especially near the climax.

Ultimately, your overall enjoyment of Tinker… will depend on how much you feel you’re actually following the plot. There are two potentially deciding factors in this: one is the use of flashback to expand on the inital set-up, and while the subtitles are happy to draw the distinction between Russian and Hungarian, for example, the point in the time line of the film isn’t always as obvious. However, the fate of two key characters is laid out early on, and using them as a compass point should allow you to easily work out where the plot’s up to. The other is the use of the characters’ emotions to imply their motivations – sideways glances and background detail are often preferred to dialogue, and this feels more natural but does demand your full and undivided attention for the entire running time. If you’re paying close attention to those emotional beats, the final reveal shouldn’t come as a surprise, even if you haven’t read the book or seen previous adaptations. If you can keep these two things in mind, then this is an outstanding piece of cinema which should leave you needing a second viewing almost immediately.

Why see it at the cinema: The production design and cinematography are as outstanding as everything else, and the close up view and attention to detail demand you see this in a cinema. Also, the post-screening mumbling as you exit will allow you to determine how many people actually followed it.

The Score: 10/10