“I do consider death to be one of poetry’s most exalted themes.”
Cadet Edgar Allen Poe
Sleepy Hollow for a new generation, The Pale Blue Eye adapts Louis Bayard’s murder mystery novel set during Edgar Allen Poe’s time at West Point Military Academy, the title plucked from his most famous poem, Lenore. Scott Cooper draws inspiration liberally from Sleepy Hollow’s aesthetic, with snow-covered forests providing greater chill than the film’s dabbling in occult horror. Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography often veers toward a blue-tinted greyscale, reminiscent of his similar natural landscapes in The Grey. In his third collaboration with Cooper, Christian Bale is reliable as ever in the role of outside investigator Landor. However, the primary reason to see the film is to experience Harry Melling’s enthralling performance as Poe — physical similarity aside, he captures the inner world of the man’s open-minded intellect and his fascination with death. The film’s dual perspective between this unlikely pair — drawn together by their intellect and isolation — can dilute its potency. The Pale Blue Eye succeeds more in atmosphere than its ponderous storytelling, the mystery unfolding adequately if not quite satisfyingly (an early clue is ignored by the characters yet subsequently proves key, whilst other information is withheld entirely). Strong performance and exquisite imagery are sufficient to maintain engagement, but The Pale Blue Eye leaves the viewer cold rather than chilled.
“I played Tetris for five minutes. I still see falling blocks in my dreams.”
Adapting the wrangling over licensing rights of the universally beloved Tetris into a (heavily embelished) cold war espionage thriller is an unexpected yet intriguing choice that still pays homage to designer Alexey Pajitnov and the beautiful simplicity of the game. Egerton leads the cast as the bombastic Henk, an endearing entrepreneurial Dutch-American hustler, determined but baffled by the Soviet Union and guileless to its danger, contrasted by Nikita Efremov’s understated Alexey, a thoughtful idealist (“Good ideas have no borders”). Director Jon S. Baird isn’t able to replicate the emotional resonance of Stan & Ollie in the friendship between Henk and Alexey (everything rattles along too swiftly for that), but he introduces some fun stylistic flourishes with pixel art transitions and a car chase where collisions billow a flurry of pixels — this is a rare occasion when greater use of the gimmick would have been welcome. Soviet bureaucracy provides plenty of fodder for farce (perfectly demonstrated in The Death of Stalin), with officials marching between simultaneous negotiations in separate rooms, whilst the Union’s imminent downfall split those who wanted the best for their country and those who prioritised personal profit before the collapse. Presenting all of this together leads to a tonal disonnance at times, coupled with pacing issues that drag. The performances (with ever reliable character actors like Toby Jones and Roger Allam) nevertheless keep in motion this exuberant tale of falling blocks in a falling bloc.
“It creates an illusion of motion. An illusion of life. Out there, they just see a beam of light. And nothing happens without light.”
Empire of Light has been marketed as Sam Mendes’ ode to cinema, and that can been seen in its setting — an ageing independent cinema on the English south coast — and the poetic lines about the medium intoned by Toby Jones as the fastidious projectionist. This is all set dressing, however, to a story that really focuses on the relationship between Michael Ward and Olivia Colman’s characters, unfolding amidst the racial unrest of the early 1980s. Unfortunately the characters are all written as one-note sketches — the entire cast works admirably with the material but even a titan like Colman can only do so much with the cliché of an emotionally unstable older woman enamoured with a younger man. This is Mendes’ first solo writing credit and it seems, at least for now, his writing cannot match his directorial skill. He is most effective in portraying racism in varied guises, both direct and insinuated. Empire of Light is all beautifully presented in the hands of veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins (who has now collaborated on around half of Mendes’ films) accompanied by a gently moving score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. With so much talent involved, it seems harsh to judge the film based significantly on the script alone, but this kind of quiet, emotional picture is ultimately dependent on quality writing. My impression from the trailer was that Mendes was looking to emulate Cinema Paradiso and I feared he might engage in too much navel-gazing about the importance of cinema. In truth, I could have done with more.
Sebastian Lelio’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel is a character study of a Nightingale nurse hired by a remote Irish village to observe a child who has apparently survived for months without eating. At first The Wonder seems set up for a confrontation between rationality and religion, Florence Pugh’s Lib Wright dismissing the claim outright as impossible whilst the committee that hired her have various vested interests in the apparent miracle, be it scientific or religious. In fact, the film is more about the risk of unshakeable certainty (whatever its source) rather than the flexibility that makes communal life possible. Lelio chooses to open the film with a bold Brechtian alienation device (inspired by Goddard’s opening to Le Mepris), drawing the audience’s attention not only to the fact that this is a story, but also that it is about stories — specifically the the fictions small and large which drive us, and the selective facts we choose to craft the story of our identity. Pugh is wonderful as the nurse, initially assured in her knowledge but uncomfortable as an outsider, these facets of her performance becoming inverted the more time she spends around the mistrustful villagers (“What right does a stranger have to come between a child and its people?” she is scolded). The Wonder features a seasoned supporting cast, though only consummate character actor Toby Jones stands out as the village physician. With a limited and straightforward plot, ultimately one’s view of the film will depend on one’s appreciation for the meta-narrative around the power and necessity of stories in our lives, as Lib discovers both the danger and utility of belief in such tales.
“You know those movies where the picture just starts to slow down… and melt? Then catch fire? Well, that’s Berlin.”
Outside of superheroes, Hollywood has struggled to provide us with compelling female-led action movies. Atomic Blonde bucks the trend, though ironically Charlize Theron’s dedicated performance crafts a coldly determined character with whom audiences may struggle to empathise. A Cold War spy thriller with graphic novel roots, the script retains the unusual ability to surprise. Told in flashbacks through an adversarial debriefing, we know that what we are shown may not be the whole truth. James McAvoy’s nihilistic, brazenly duplicitous turn as a deep cover agent is a particular highlight. 1989 Berlin is shot in cool blues infused with splashes of neon colour — it is reminiscent of John Wick, which Leitch co-directed. Everything is familiar then, including the action (a brutal extended fight in a stairwell stands out), but this strange blend of Le Carré and John Wick is presented with a stylish boldness that demands attention.
“Do you know your place in the universe? Do you know where you are?”
Out of Blue is a mesmerising noir mystery that prizes atmosphere and a singular perspective over its meandering plot, calling to mind Donnie Darko (down to the soundtrack’s use of The Killing Moon) without quite descending into Lynchian madness. Director Carol Morley draws the female detective and cosmology elements as ingredients from Martin Amis’ Night Train, but mixes her own cocktail with a strong visual language and an unusually British lens on a New Orleans setting. Patricia Clarkson is perfect as detective Mike Hoolihan, comfortably wearing the typically male noir tropes whilst her character wryly wards off a complaint, “there’s many ways to be a woman.” Mike’s murder investigation draws parallels with the work of her theoretical physicist suspects, particularly the notion of observation changing results. Not only does observation alter Mike’s understanding of the present (she is routinely pictured closely observing evidence through a magnifying glass) and her own past, but one also reflects on whether the audience members, by observing different clues, each create a different a film. This idea fits with Morley’s desire to make the film “spacious enough that people can insert themselves”. There are definite parallels with True Detective‘s first season, with its similarly atmospheric take on Louisiana, its pervasive sense of dread, and the anticlimactic result of its more inscrutable fantastic imagery which never quite lands. And, just the same, Out of Blue lingers hauntingly afterward.
“You want a child? A violent desire such as yours can only be satisfied with violence.”
Adult-orientated fantasy adapted from the stories of Italian poet Giambattista Basile, Tale of Tales serves as a reminder that there is nothing inherently infantile about fairy tales in their purest form. An unkindly reductive description might be Eurotrash fairy tales, between Vincent Cassel’s debaucherous king, the jealous motherly love of Salma Hayek’s queen and a clowning Toby Jones (who did, after all, attend the school of Jacques Lecoq in Paris). To the extent that there is a running thread between the various stories, it is that any desire for change in one’s circumstances is inherently violent and has a corresponding cost, whether it is borne by oneself or by others.