coming of age

Review: Neds

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The Pitch: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley/ An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain.” — Robert Burns

The Review: There’s an unfortunate truth about attempting to compile a list of great British directors: most of them are likely to be dead. Two of the last three winners of the Best Director Academy Award hail from these shores, but many of our best talents struggle for recognition on the wider stage. For many of those who struggle undeservedly for recognition, the themes they reflect are of the British underclass, those working classes who have to struggle against adversity at any turn, so many British character actors will often end up playing similar roles along similar themes. One such actor is Peter Mullan, who’s probably best known for his turns in Scottish themed films such as Braveheart and Trainspotting, and his third film as director tackles not only a working class background, but another staple of British film, the coming of age drama.

There’s a risk of descending into cliché when treading not one, but two well worn paths, but Neds feels both comfortable on those paths and still manages to feel fresh and vibrant. Neds is the story of John McGill, an unusually bright boy who’s entering into the world of men, and has to find his place. His brother is well known in local circles, particularly as being someone not to be messed with, but that also brings its fair share of trouble for John, who finds himself tarred with the same brush. His education gets him noticed, but also risks making him a target, so John increasingly finds himself living down to expectations in an effort to survive. What’s unexpected is what John will do once a little power begins to go to his head, and he finds himself with more than one fight on his hands.

The cast is made up of largely local children who’ve taken their first steps into acting, and consequently the performances feel authentic but also raw and edgy. Leading the cast are Gregg Forrest and Conor McCarron, who portray John at different ages, and McCarron especially is a revelation as the confused and often angry youngster. Many of the best lines go to the teachers, who capture perfectly the sarcasm and disdain that teachers so often seem to exhibit to exert their superiority over their students in such situations. The other notable performances are that of John’s parents, especially a raging, bewildering turn by Mullan himself as John’s father. Mullan’s direction must also be credited for getting the most out of the performances, and for also giving the Seventies setting such a feeling of realism that you might almost think this is archive footage, and his script is by turns authentic and uncompromising.

I really do mean uncompromising – the “18” rating of the film isn’t earned for the violence, but for “very strong lanugage”, and in an age when “The King’s Speech” can get a 12A with 17 F-words, that’s no small feat. Not that you’ll understand all of it; Trainspotting famously got subtitled for Americans when shipped over there, and goodness only knows that they’d make of this, the accents being as authentic as everything else, and just occasionally impenetrable for anyone born south of the border. Thankfully the ebb and flow of the film serves to keep understanding and momentum on those odd occasions when the words might be literally too thick and fast. The violence in the film would apparently have been worth only a “15” rating, but it’s sporadic and all the more effective for it, occasional sickening blows which serve to underline the error of John’s ways, if not always his motivations. The overall package of school laughs and out of school anger is compelling enough; what really elevates this are the occasional surreal moments, including an unlikely encounter with Jesus and an ending which probably serves as the most surreal metaphor for the entirety of the movie it’s in seen in many a year. All in all, fantastic work from all concerned, and we can only hope that Mullan picks up his own pace soon; there feels much more he’s worthy of exploring, but at three films in fourteen years, he’d better get a move on.

Why see it at the cinema: It’s a slow burner, but when it does it burns bright and fierce. The humour and the drama deserve a communal audience, and you never know, you might be able to check with your neighbour if you’re really struggling. (The Movie Evangelist does not condone talking in the cinema, but needs must sometimes.)

The Score: 9/10

Review: Black Swan

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The Pitch: Swan Lake and Madness used to make me think only of this. Not any more…

The Review: At the time of year when awards are being handed out, it’s often useful to consider what qualities a great film embodies. When considering my favourite film of all time last year, I noted that Back To The Future was the master of many films, a science fiction / action / comedy / romance that did all types very well. It’s not a prerequisite for greatness, but if a film can straddle genres so successfully, then it stands a much better chance of being enjoyable. Black Swan is certainly a melding of many different concepts; it is on the surface a ballet film, and certainly the parallels with Swan Lake are clear and simple. Early on, ballet director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) confidently tells everyone in his company that they all know the story of Swan Lake, then proceeds to explain it anyway for the benefit in the audience of anyone who might have come in cold. But this early scene with dancers rehearsing and generally milling in the foreground and background will leave you in no doubt of the context, and director Darren Aronofsky packs the film with ballet detail, from sessions at the physiotherapist to the rituals of preparing ballet shoes for the rigours of performance.

It’s also very much a character drama, and there a number of key players in this drama. The nexus of the drama, on screen almost constantly and into whose mindset we are drawn, is Nina (Natalie Portman), as she replaces Beth (Winona Ryder) at the centre of the ballet company and attempts to get into the dual mindset of the White and Black Swans at Swan Lake’s centre. Her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) guides her career, but may be holding her back as much as pushing her on, and her inhibited home live leads Thomas to encourage her to bond with tattooed rebel Lily (Mila Kunis) in order to explore both sides of her psyche. Lily is her exact opposite, almost her doppelgänger, and when Thomas makes Lily Nina’s understudy, her nervousness about the challenge begins to build into a full-blown psychosis.

Black Swan is effectively a coming of age drama, but this is no John Hughes movie; encouraged to the point of sexual harassment in his actions by Thomas, Nina transitions from the virginal and metaphorical White Swan to the dark side of her personality. Natalie Portman is completely fearless in her role, laying bare her emotions and being completely unafraid to explore the more sexual side of the role as well. (And when I say explore, let’s just say that When Harry Met Sally’s got nothing on this one where female vocalisation and inhibitions are concerned.) The whole cast is great, Hershey playing the overbearing mother to perfection and Cassel and Kunis also filling the roles well, but this is Portman’s movie and she slowly but surely takes ownership of the role and the film as it progresses. Aronofsky sees the parallels in the loss of innocence in adolescence as a parallel for Nina’s development and exploration, giving Portman plenty of meat to work with, and the psychosexual aspects add further layers to the drama and, indeed, the horror that form the core of the narrative.

For yes, this is as much a horror movie as anything else, and that will undoubtedly come as a shock to a certain part of the audience who’ve come for the ballet. The psychosexual tension simmers and occasionally bubbles, but there is psychological horror here as well as aspects of body horror that would seem to suggest Aronofsky could be a natural successor to David Cronenberg. It’s subtle and woven through the fabric of the film, and helps to ratchet up the tension at key points. There are parallels to the director’s previous work, and Aronofsky himself has quoted Polanski’s Repulsion, but if anything the film is most reminiscent at points of the Roger Moore film The Man Who Haunted Himself, as Nina sees herself reflected in the faces of those around her and starts to lose her grip on reality. The only criticism that could be levelled at the film is that it’s occasionally a little one note in tone, but what a note and what a tone. Fascinated with the idea of the double and the understudy as the usurper, Black Swan also has a mirror in almost every scene and is full of both physical and metaphorical reflection; when you come to reflect on Black Swan, you’ll realise that Darren Aronofsky and his cast have created something just a little unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, tense, theatrical, racy and provocative; allow your darker side out and it’ll have a fantastic time with this.

Why see it at the cinema: As communal audience experiences go, this one’s a belter; you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, if you’re even slightly prudish you’ll feel very uncomfortable and between those lapping up all the melodrama and those in shock at getting a film they plainly weren’t expecting, there’s sure to be a buzz on the way out the door or at the pub afterwards. The subtle CG embellishments and sweeping stage scenes will be best appreciated on the largest screen you can find, so see it soon while it’s still on the main screens at your multiplex.

The Score: 9/10