45 Years (2015)

★★★★

45 Years PosterDirector: Andrew Haigh

Release Date: August 28th, 2015 (UK); December 23rd, 2015 (US)

Genre: Drama; Romance

Starring: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay

Apparent normalcy reigns supreme before being crushed in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years. It is instantly established that our central couple — Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) — live an ordinary life together, or at least that they have done up until the point we meet them. We see, for instance, Kate having an amiable chat with her postman, a former student, as she finishes up her daily walk with the dog. Life is as it would be for just about any ageing couple: very innocuous. What’s also innocuous, though, is the means by which said life is turned upside down.

Geoff receives a letter in the mail and, upon reading it at the breakfast table, finds out that the frozen body of a former lover has been found in a Swiss crevasse (this following said lover Katya’s tragic death in the early 1960s). The immediate conversation reverts, again, to normalcy. The two discuss how they feel about the news, its similarity to the Tollund Man, the science of glaciers and their preservation qualities. Even the possibility that the body mightn’t, in fact, be that of Katya. All the while, Lol Crawley’s camera remains settled on the couple, affording them as much time to breath and converse as they need.

It’s Kate and Geoff’s 45th wedding anniversary on the Saturday — the film follows a day-by-day structure, starting on Monday — for which they are having a party, though what should be a time for pleasurable anticipation turns into one of uncertainty and eventual dread. “So full of history you see, like a good marriage,” Kate hears from her Maître d’ at the very start of the film, shortly after the news but before any anxieties have truly set in. Later, Kate makes her own assertion about the undisclosed histories of she and her husband: “We were both going through something really unpleasant and yet we never talked about it in all the years that we’ve known each other.”

Rampling is the more practical of the pair as Kate, the active one (she seems to be the main force behind the upcoming party and does most of the dog-walking). The film tends to see events from her point of view: we open with her, traverse the moors with her, travel into town with her, and investigate Geoff’s past with her. Rampling obliges by assuming an authority through her presence; not the bossy kind but the controlled sort that a former teacher might bear. She probably has the tougher role of the two given Kate’s detachment is a more gradual, subtle affair (Geoff, on the other hand, has his head in the clouds as soon as he learns of Katya’s fate).

Geoff is less sound, more wavering, and Courtenay plays him with a stuttering sensibility. His memories of Katya seem clear and he often appears nervous when relaying them to his wife. Haigh’s screenplay is understated, so much so that the film can only thrive upon its own, bare-bones merits, of which there are many — the acting is restrained, as is Haigh’s direction. So when secrets inevitably spill out, they take centre stage. We are compelled to listen and listen we do: to snippets of withheld information and the considered reactions that follow said revelations.

There is an excellent scene around halfway through the film during which we see Kate and Geoff meet with their friends, the camera floating between conversations that neither of the two are actively participating in. This is the corruptive power of a seemingly banal secret. Time also hangs over the piece; its inevitability is something both Kate and Geoff find themselves weighing up during a chat where they casually lament the lack of children and grandchildren in their life. Geoff speaks of Katya being frozen in time, and how it feels odd to him that he has aged immeasurably by comparison. He worries about “losing that purposefulness” and his fear resonates because it is something that all of us will someday comprehend.

Music is utilised minimally — there’s hardly a score, if one at all, Haigh instead placing confidence in the storytelling ability of nature’s tweets and gusts. Terrifically frosty shots of the Norfolk countryside highlight both the dewy autumn setting and the impending sense of isolation our main characters feel. 45 Years is a superbly told domestic trust drama. The underlying tension isn’t edge-of-your-seat, but rather needling and discomforting. From something to look forward to, Saturday’s party becomes a lingering dark shadow. And parties are supposed to be fun.

45 Years - Tom Courtenay & Charlotte Rampling

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Artificial Eye

The Danish Girl (2016)

★★★

The Danish Girl PosterDirector: Tom Hooper

Release Date: December 25th, 2015 (US); January 1st, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; Romance

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander

Just like last year, Eddie Redmayne is spending his January up on cinema screens across the UK in a film about strong relationships and physical change. The Theory of Everything thrived upon its stars’ chemistry — Redmayne and Felicity Jones perfectly complemented each other as Mr. and Mrs. Hawking — and it is true that much of what is great about The Danish Girl revolves around its central pairing. Unfortunately, the film undercuts the dramatic potential of its subject matter (reality-based pioneering gender reassignment surgery). It shouldn’t be standard fare, but it is.

Redmayne plays Einar Wegener, an artist who dresses up as a woman at the behest of his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), and feels whole upon doing so. Einar evolves into Lili, first mentally and then physically, though Redmayne’s vulnerability remains steadily palpable throughout. The problem isn’t the actor; it won’t come as a surprise for you to learn he is good. Rather, it is the syrupy circus that surrounds him — those feather-light piano melodies that are enforced without any sort of careful restraint, and a screenplay absolutely swamped in fluffy dialogue (“My life, my wife”).

There is heartfelt delicacy, which is clearly what screenwriter Lucinda Coxon is going for, and then there is off-putting sentimentality, which is what she ends up with. Despite this, the film manages to celebrate two different kinds of femininity. Redmayne plays Lili with a soft evasiveness undoubtedly born out of her repressed identity. Gerda, on the other hand, appears battle-hardened, initially parading a boldness and then later genuine strength in the face of life-changing revelations. You have to believe in their relationship and its robustness in order to believe in the film on a very basic level, and you do because Redmayne and particularly Vikander sell their characters’ love authentically.

As Lili’s desire for personal correction ripens, the nuances of the two central roles are reversed and the narrative focus flips (at least it did for me). The Danish Girl starts to explore those hardships encountered by its other Danish girl, Gerda. Lili’s physical and mental anguish is plain to see and at times tough to consume, but we also must remember the major impact her situation is having on Gerda’s life too. Vikander takes us on an emotional roller coaster: pained, confused, sorrowful, empathetic. We watch just as she does, and we feel because she feels.

Like in Mr. Turner, art is used as a mode for exploration. That is until the film forgets about the art, which in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. Securing one’s true lifestyle is far more important after all, but we do spend a fair chunk of time in plush museums and at fancy gatherings and around interesting paintings for the piece to avoid that stuff thereafter (the movie’s funniest moment transpires from Gerda painting a particularly uptight gentleman). To be fair, this move away from art is consistent with Lili’s mindset — she decides not continue her career upon finding her real self — though a visit to the easel every now and again would have been welcome for story continuity: how are the duo making enough money for travel and healthcare if only one of them is working?

Tom Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen borrow from, of all people, Wes Anderson’s portfolio, at one point whimsically depicting a street of yellow bungalows side-on. It is a great shot, a single quirky page out of an otherwise standard picture book. Lili and Gerda’s house looks a bit like a charcoal painting, with shades of blue and grey adding little colour to the wooden floorboards and cracked walls — like the opening hour of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, of all films, it feels as though we are watching people interact on a carefully constructed set.

Todd Haynes’ Carol took on the social imbalance of 1950s New York and The Danish Girl similarly reflects a time when ‘to be different’ meant ‘to be insane’. We never really get into the nitty gritty of that though; the piece does seem to want to delve further into how Lili is affected by society’s petulance, opting to show an unprovoked attack and a couple of doctors’ misinformed diagnoses, though that is as far as it goes. Upon learning about a surgeon who might be willing to help Lili from one of Gerda’s clients (Amber Heard), any lingering backlash becomes non-existent.

Vikander aside, subtlety rarely features. Perhaps the subject matter requires as much, but an overly mushy screenplay lands the outing in cold water. The script also fails to carry the level of propulsion necessary to maintain two genuinely compelling hours. We enter more interesting territory when the spotlight is shone on Gerda and her struggles — a point at which Lili’s post-breakthrough self-obsession is admirably acknowledged (“Not everything is about you”) — but it isn’t really enough. Matthias Schoenaerts and Ben Wishaw freshen things up occasionally, though their roles do not carry any weight in the grand scheme of things.

I referred to a particularly amusing portrait painting scene earlier as a lone funny moment, but there is another unintentionally humorous façade: Lili (at this point still Einar) dresses up as a woman and attends an artist’s ball with Gerda. It’s like something out of a Superman comic: apart from a few close friends, nobody recognises the apparently popular landscape artist despite the astounding resemblance. Perhaps that is The Danish Girl in a nutshell: all too obvious and oddly difficult to comprehend.

The Danish Girl - Eddie Redmayne & Alicia Vikander

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Focus Features, Universal Pictures

Carol (2015)

★★★★

Carol PosterDirector: Todd Haynes

Release Date: November 20th, 2015 (US); November 27th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Romance

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara

A fateful glance across a shop floor ignites this grandly passionate yet earnestly personal love story. It is that classic meeting of the eyes moment, and eyes end up playing a huge part Todd Haynes’ tale — store clerk Therese’s (Rooney Mara) are expectant and uncertain whereas socialite Carol’s (Cate Blanchett) mask a painful truth. The two women subsequently have a conversation: “Shopping makes me nervous,” confesses the latter. “Working here makes me nervous,” replies Therese. Really their nerves are a product of each woman’s attraction to the other, the initial spark of excitement that could burn out or, potentially, flicker into something more fiery.

For many, Therese will be the more relatable of the two. She is the amateur embarking on a new adventure, full of excitement and trepidation. A femme fatale with a conscience, Carol must juggle instinct and desire against her past experiences. We’ll get to that. On a surface level, the film is practically faultless. Therese dons comfy woolly hats and patchwork scarves. Conversely, Carol is always decked out in the finest looking garments, and while she attends sophisticated parties entertained by brass bands, her soon-to-be other half drinks down the local. The aesthetics, though nice to look at, are completely beside the point. In fact, class and social standing are hardly acknowledged — the barrier holding back romance is society’s unwillingness to accept human nature.

Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, the screenplay is at times too self-aware. Words don’t feel forced, but convenience does play its part: initiated by her male friend, Therese happens to have a spur-of-the-moment conversation about attraction shortly after meeting Carol. At worst, the script is a product of its naive time period and perhaps this makes it a bit less emotionally involving than something like Blue is the Warmest Colour (a film that can more easily evade ideas of social vilification and instead channel its energy into character-driven ideals).

On the flip side, these abrupt conversations about perceived cultural faux pas work because they incorporate notions of identity, and the film is an exploration of exactly that: Therese is still searching for her identity and has nothing to lose; Carol knows who she is, but is losing everything as a result. We often see the former gazing longingly out of shaded car windows, her face hidden beneath layers of sleet or rain, the suggestion being we’ve yet to see the real her. A delectable soundtrack matches the mood at any given time — Billie Holiday’s “Easy Living” is a particular highlight. The film is dripping in romantic overtures, it has to be, but there is a sincerity at play aided by grounded performances that steer the piece clear of potential sappiness.

And Carol, like John Crowley’s Brooklyn, is at its very best when its two muses are together on screen. With poise and consideration, their chemistry develops naturally. Whereas Carol is outwardly confident, oozing the sultry vibe of classic Hollywood star, Therese looks and sounds like a student taking extra lessons from her tutor during lunch break — she is initially on edge, bumbling, unsure of her standing with Carol. The characterisation is far from black-and-white though; both women evolve and devolve as their relationship gains and loses momentum.

Carol, for instance, is a bit of a mess herself, elegance shielding her crumbling home life. This fractured domesticity constantly gets in the way, even when she and Therese take a festive road trip (like Die Hard, this could end up being another go-to Christmas flick that isn’t actually about Christmas). The desires of husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) constantly linger and, sure enough, he bursts into view at the most inopportune moments. Chandler spends the entirety of proceedings with a grimace tattooed to his face. Harge isn’t a bad guy in fairness, but his attempts to hamper Carol’s relationship with her daughter, whom she loves dearly, are unsavoury. Sarah Paulson also shows up as Carol’s confidant, Abby, and is excellent as the realist with a heart.

Edward Lachman’s crackling cinematography warms us to the wintry 1950s cityscape. His camera glides around our central protagonists as they test the amorous fumes with slight touches, the lens fully aware sparks are flying and waiting for the right moment to engage — when intimacy inevitably erupts it’s expertly judged and as far from gratuitous as can be. The framing is also a joy to watch: one particular still shot splits the screen in half, on the left depicting Carol behind a doorway and on the right emphasising a picture of a ship caught in stormy waters. These instances are indicative of an outing clearly in love with the filmmaking process, and there is even a nod to the projectionists of yesteryear (and those valiant few still standing). Aspiring screenwriters get a shout-out too: “What I wanna do is write, that’s why I watch movies.”

If cinema interests you in any way, chances are you’re already well aware of the buzz surrounding both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara and don’t need me to bolster an already sturdy case. Director Todd Haynes knows his actors are the driving force behind Carol’s success and rightly lets them get on with it. For what it is worth, the two are collectively and individually excellent: Mara’s subtle development is a joy to watch and a legal scene played with heartbreaking authenticity by Blanchett is the type that wins awards. The Aussie ought to invest in another trophy cabinet.

Carol - Rooney Mara & Cate Blanchett

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): The Weinstein Company, StudioCanal

Frances Ha (2013)

★★★★

Frances Ha PosterDirector: Noah Baumbach

Release Date: May 17th, 2013 (US limited); July 26th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Drama; Romance

Starring: Greta Gerwig

There isn’t really a plot to Noah Baumbach’s low-key indie drama Frances Ha. Certainly not one of any conventional sort. We are thrown straight into the life of our central protagonist, the eponymous Frances (Greta Gerwig), without a proper introduction. From opening to closing she spends her time apartment hunting (this is the film’s central crisis), though Frances doesn’t seem all that worked up about her uncertain predicament. The screenplay, penned by Gerwig and Baumbach, is very loose — you get the feeling there was a lot of improvisation during filming.

And yet the whole thing bumbles along with excitable charm and an internal confidence born, perhaps, out of experience. It could be a Woody Allen venture: title cards pop up every so often detailing the various locations Frances attempts to settle (primarily around New York), and the nomad herself fits Allen’s ditzy mould. When she isn’t spending time with her best mate, who sports glasses with enormous lenses by the way, Frances is training to become a dancer. Unfortunately she ain’t quite up to the required standard and, in New York, triers don’t get paid: “I can’t even get outta the house on my feet”.

Characters often mumble incoherences, blabbing one minute about unaffordable rent bills and the next about finger injuries. In reality, despite what Aaron Sorkin would have us believe, we probably spend much of our time conversing in a similar fashion. Not that Baumbach’s film reflects real life: there is a scene where our luckless protagonist gallantly offers to pay the bill following a meal with a potential boyfriend (the body of her previous beau is still warm at this point), only for her card to be declined. Rather than letting Adam Driver’s Lev Shapiro — if that is his real name — do the honours, Frances bolts out of the restaurant and scampers around the neighbourhood looking for a cash point. She finds one eventually, reappearing at the table with some money and a randomly bloodied arm.

You laugh because the whole scenario is utterly bonkers, and it is one that cements the film’s reputation as a bible for clumsy folk. Frances Ha is like the Friends movie finally realised, only every character is Phoebe. This hodgepodge of kookiness is actually fairly endearing and lends itself to the overarching notion of misadventure. It transpires Frances is actually a pretty good dancer (“You were great tonight”), but her instructor opts to cut her from the Christmas play anyway. Is Frances the unluckiest person alive or is she simply too unprepared, her moment-to-moment style of living an inescapable and fruitless trap? Regardless, you stick with her because she refuses to give up her creative passion. That is admirable.

These underplayed indie outings are often left wide open when it comes to accusations of baselessness, and there is a sense that Baumbach only shot in black-and-white because there happened to be a spare roll lying around. But I don’t think the film aspires to be intentionally pithy. Indeed, there is a pithiness in the sense that it’s a quirky drama without an A-to-B plot and C-to-D script, but that’s just how it is in Baumbach’s New York. Another apartment dweller, Benji (Michael Zegen), wants to write for Saturday Night Live and suitably spends his days watching movies, presumably because procrastination is the key to comedic success.

Greta Gerwig plays Frances with a childlike innocence: she sleeps with the door ajar; she turns to her parents in a time of need; she engages in play fights with other resistant lodgers. There is even a moment where the camera cuts to her teaching a group of youngsters ballet, and she looks right at home. Grinning with a genuine smile, Gerwig superbly manages to captivate through a waft of potential annoyance, and as such you see and sympathise with the fragility bubbling beneath Frances’ surface.

Elegantly inelegant, the daydreamer relentlessly apologises to people when she’s probably only at fault two-thirds of the time. Solutions are right there at her fingertips yet she keeps washing her hands — a temporary job at the dance studio that would earn her some cash becomes available, but she is initially too impulsive (fed up with speculative opportunities?) to accept. The supporting players all contribute too, particularly Grace Gummer whose dissociative air is a terrific counterbalance to Gerwig’s friendliness.

Paul McCartney and David Bowie are part of a soundtrack that hops tactfully from in vogue pop to classical strings to early Hollywood-era romance. Sam Levy’s cinematography bears a trace of Wes Anderson — the camera often adopts a still frame that zips back and forth between characters in conversation. The film is generally mad, makes little sense, and exists in a hyper-surreal world where people do silly things and still manage to get by. But it is addictive and funny and sweet, and that’s all that matters really.

Frances Ha - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): ICF Films

Brooklyn (2015)

★★★★

Brooklyn PosterDirector: John Crowley

Release Date: November 4th, 2015 (US); November 6th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Romance

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson

When we first meet Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) she is about to work a shift for store owner Miss Kelly — aptly nicknamed Nettles Kelly, played with spite by Bríd Brennan — who apparently enjoys making the young Irish lass’ life a misery. So when Eilis’ local priest sets in motion a plan that’ll take her across the pond, you expect to see a burst of excitement, relief even, emanate from our protagonist. Yet the prevailing emotion is guilt, over leaving her mother and older sister, over leaving her home, even over leaving her downbeat customer service job.

And this guilt never truly dissipates at any point during Brooklyn, John Crowley’s richly romantic immigrant drama. A shipmate on the stomach-lurching trip to the US manifests as a friendly face full of relaxing advice: “The mistake was coming home from America in the first place”. Her caring attitude reminds us of Eilis’ older sister Rose, who is movingly played by Fiona Glascott. Glascott, along with Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen, should be a main player during the upcoming awards season.

Upon arriving in Brooklyn, Eilis begins work as a seller in an upmarket department store, supervised by Miss Fortini (Jessica Paré) who fits somewhere between Nettles Kelly and The Devil Wears Prada’s Anne Hathaway on the strict spectrum. Eilis quickly realises she is an errant tadpole swimming in a giant urban ocean. She’s just a normal girl after all, someone who yawns at church and rolls her eyes when discussing boys. Yves Bélanger inserts a few mirror shots of Eilis, her reflection lost and alone amongst a rabble of strangers, their faces either hidden from view or burry.

She is scared to commit, perhaps a consequence of her rough separation from Ireland — an emotional packing scene between her and Rose is subtly powerful — or maybe because she is unsure of herself in this grand new world. However everything changes after two key events: the obvious, her meeting Tony Fiorello (Cohen), and the less obvious, a reaffirming experience at a holiday dinner for the homeless (Irish immigrants who built America, who founded opportunity for millions of others though their unselfish hard graft). At times Nick Hornby’s screenplay dabbles in romantic extremes, and when one of the immigrants sings a familiar song that leaves Eilis in tears, your sentimental barometer rages.

Tony doesn’t talk much because he loves listening to Eilis’ voice. He’s like James Dean, only less rebellious, and has the perfectly poised wavy hairdo and charming, cocky grin to match. The chemistry between the two sparks with authenticity, thanks in no small part to both actors. Cohen is readymade for 50s living and the manner in which he carefully interrogates his muse is unflinchingly amiable. Ronan is also excellent, for the most part reigning in her exterior while also managing to evoke an entire range of emotions, from longing to hope, and despair to joy.

We meet Tony’s youngest brother at a Fiorello family dinner, the kid a comedic firecracker with slapstick sensibilities. Laughs arrive on fairly regular basis throughout Brooklyn and the vast majority of them are mined around the dinner table (Crowley and co. could be on to a new subgenre). As head of the boarding where Eilis stays during her time in New York, Julie Walters is frequently the pivot from which laughter swings, often humorously shutting down the film’s very own ugly sisters — they’re actually beautiful, and not related — who constantly spew mischievous mealtime jibes.

Eilis’ commitment issues are especially highlighted in the presence of Tony, though she never looks disconnected, just slightly standoffish. We will her to take the plunge, not through malice, but because the pair are clearly meant to be together. The idealistic core that shapes their relationship reflects Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne’s rapport in The Theory of Everything. It’s not physical thing, nor even an emotional one; there is a sensitive pressure surrounding Jones and Redmayne’s companionship that isn’t necessarily prevalent here. Rather, both partnerships evoke a pleasant tenderness and both are as far from saccharine as is possible.

As Eilis’ confidence grows, her happiness shoots up and her outfits become brighter. Just as she is riding the crest of an enormously positive wave, a significant event sends the water crashing. We revisit Ireland and meet another potential love interest in Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson). Those who have seen the trailer will know about Jim’s appearance, though upon spending some time with Tony you begin to wonder exactly how Brooklyn is going to successfully introduce a serviceable competitor for Eilis’ affections. Well it does, and the casting of the intrinsically unlikeable Domhnall Gleeson is why. Gleeson, by the way, seemingly repels poor films.

We revisit the theme of guilt born out of love and loneliness: when Eilis returns to Ireland everyone wants her to stay. To marry. To work. Distance can be both an enemy and a friend. Unfortunately the enemy consistently lingers like a spectre whereas the friend only visits fleetingly. From a tadpole in an ocean, back in Ireland Eilis looks like a misplaced New Yorker. She now has two homes and misses them both.

There is nothing flashy going on in Brooklyn, which is testament to John Crowley’s trust in the material — a solid screenplay, an unobtrusive score, a talented cast. The material, as it transpires, is delightful.

Brooklyn - Emory Cohen & Saoirse Ronan

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate, Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Theory of Everything (2015)

★★★★

The Theory of Everything PosterDirector: James Marsh

Release Date: November 26th, 2014 (US); January 1st, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; Romance

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones

In The Theory of Everything Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) spends a lifetime trying to figure out the inception of our very existence. For all intents and purposes he succeeds in doing so. Or maybe he doesn’t. Maybe it doesn’t matter. This really depends on your own beliefs. James Marsh’s film ventures down a similar path to that of its central figure as it attempts to fulfil various thematic nodes: love story, tale of human adversity, science exhibition and so on. As these strands weave together to form Stephen’s story they don’t always feel complete. Or maybe they do. Maybe it doesn’t matter. This really depends on your own expectations.

Providing those expectations aren’t bound up by a need to see something totally flawless, The Theory of Everything should cover all bases sufficiently. Most of us are aware of Stephen Hawking; certainly of his illness if not the physicist’s scientific endeavours. The film takes us through Stephen’s adult life, from his first inclinations that something is wrong with his body to the writing of his best-selling book, A Brief History of Time.

But it becomes clear as the picture develops that Marsh’s vision isn’t necessarily weighed down by either disability or science, and instead the director wants to tell the story of a relationship. As such, The Theory of Everything becomes a co-biopic, its emphasis as much on the obvious struggles of Stephen as on the less obvious trials of his long time wife Jane (Felicity Jones). It’s because of this, and because the filmmaker only has two hours to capture a life of enormity, that key elements fall by the wayside. Shortly after Stephen is diagnosed with motor neuron disease — a scene shot so intimately by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme that the devastation is doubled — we learn that he only has two years left to live. Though, in a move that indicates the director’s desire to fit more stuff in, the film nonchalantly evades the two year mark.

It is an unenviable problem to have, one that leaves Stephen’s relationship with Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) a little underfed, but the (admittedly necessarily) overstretched journey does afford us more than just an insight into the Hawking family. The early interactions between Stephen and Jane are reminiscent of those shared by Celine and Jesse in Richard Linklater’s Before… trilogy; he is quite awkward and she timid, but before long they are strolling around picturesque locales discussing the source of humankind. Both are defined by entirely separate ideologies too, Jane being a believer God and an arts student, Stephen an advocate for method and science. “I have a slight problem with the celestial dictatorship premise,” he says and from then we’re totally drawn into the pair’s capricious relationship.

In a manner of speaking, The Theory of Everything draws its pulpy interior from a clash of science and faith. Yet the film never exploits this duel beyond repair and instead uses it as an underlying catalyst for its central love story. Stephen, despite his adoration for the subject, is increasingly pillaged by science, his health deteriorating by the frame. He even defies the presence of a doctor, much to the chagrin of his wife. On the other hand Jane finds herself silently enraptured by the life she might’ve had as she and her husband spend more and more time with Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox), a choir conductor whom Jane meets at church. The influence of the couple’s branching schools of thought is slight but entirely profound, a notion particularly felt when Stephen momentarily submits his incessant ignorance of God and then begins to backtrack. “Are you actually going to allow me to have this moment?” Jane asks.

Much of the praise the film have received thus far has been directed towards the performances of both Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, and for good reason. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that in 2015 these actors will deliver excellence on screen, but the level the pair operate at here is truly magnificent. Redmayne does all the hard graft as Stephen, completely embodying the physicist’s eventual symbolic manifestation. It’s a role without a safety net and Redmayne should be commended for his artistic bravery as well as his tremendous portrayal. Jones is every bit as good, her subtlety and finesse perfectly complementing the physicality in Redmayne’s enactment. She’s more than simply a supplement though, Jones accentuating the strength of Jane through her pained-yet-defiant facial range. Supporting work from the likes of Charlie Cox and David Thewlis is also strong, though it is Redmayne and Jones who stand out significantly.

The Theory of Everything is at its best when Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are united, projecting performances that are totally different but equally effective and affecting. The film is delightfully funny too, and not at all bogged down by disconsolation. And hey, if it’s good enough for Stephen Hawking, it’s good enough for me.

The Theory of Everything - Redmayne and Jones

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Focus Features, Universal Pictures

Drinking Buddies (2013)

★★★

Drinking Buddies PosterDirector: Joe Swanberg

Release Date: August 23rd, 2013 (US limited); November 1st, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Romance

Starring: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick

If I knew anything about alcohol, I’d compare Drinking Buddies to an ice cold brew: refreshing and momentarily absolving, but certainly nothing impactful in the long run. Guzzle too much and you’ll wake up with a dizzied demeanour, clutching at the faint straws of last night’s antics. You probably wouldn’t want to indulge these characters for too long either, else their credible charm will devolve into a more septic annoyance. Director Joe Swanberg finds an amiable balance though and subsequently delivers a film that is controlled despite its obvious air of improvisation. But much like that 11th beer, Drinking Buddies just doesn’t feel necessary. There is a gaping plot contrivance, one that’s really difficult to ignore.

As co-workers at a Chicago-based brewery, Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) spend more time with each other than they do their respective partners. The duo even manage to squeeze evening bar gallivants alongside other staffers into their laid back schedules. A double date weekend away ushers in a few new home truths — at least one more than we’re already aware of — whilst also cementing the obvious, that these two should be a couple.

So why aren’t they? Drinking Buddies calmly shuffles along for 90 minutes and for at least 85 of those we ponder that exact sentiment. The notion promoting Kate and Luke as a terminally separate item is quite unbelievable, so much so that the amour scales eventually bowl over into absurdity. At its heart the film is a ‘will they, won’t they?’ story that seems destined for a conclusion within reach but beyond common sense. Kate and Luke are both drinkers, they’re both jokers, both laid back. The two even work at the same craft brewery. Better still, the duo’s respective partners are more suited to a relationship with each other as opposed to their current situation. Anna Kendrick is Jill, who likes to hike and muse over philosophical idioms. She’s not much of a bevy merchant. Inconspicuously, neither is Kate’s boyfriend Chris.

The plot, though straightforward and immersive enough, struggles to overcome the grandiose fabrication staring it right in the face. We spent far too much time frustrated, pleading with the characters to face the overt facts. Not frustrated in an enticing manner, rather, gratingly so. It is a shame because Swanberg — who also wrote, edited and co-produced — drives home a genuine sense of believability when it comes to his characters. We recognise the people and we like them, but their situation is borderline nonsense.

There is an impetus to improvise and, for the most part, a justifiable one. Although proceedings occasionally teeter down an overly spontaneous route where natural is irritatingly substituted in favour of awkward (a conversation during a mundane forest hike, for example) this mantra that puts the ball in the actors’ court is a welcome one. The indie tint is prevalent and actually very agreeable; visually, Drinking Buddies manifests as cosy if not at all flashy. Nor should it be flashy. The filmmaker squeezes a lot out of his $500,000 budget by tending towards simplicity, a decision that also coalesces neatly with Swanberg’s attempts to enforce purity.

Much of what is happening hinges on the talents of Drinking Buddies‘ cast and they universally deliver. Olivia Wilde leads as Kate, constantly dawning shades in order to convince us she is hungover. Kate could easily be unlikeable — she is sort of clingy and relentlessly fails to take control of situations — but Wilde’s effortless allure grants her unlimited lives. Stepping away from the wrestling ring for a moment, Jake Johnson turns up as the other half of the film’s dynamic duo, Luke. Johnson has a slightly easier job than Wilde but delivers wholesomely nonetheless; Jake is cool (he has a beard) and eternally collected. The flick is at its most mobile when these two share the screen, their chemistry constantly sizzling. Anna Kendrick is also thrown in at the deep end — Jill is the character who is sort of ruining what inevitably would be a picturesque relationship. Yet, we still get along with her. Kendrick’s stock is on a rapid ascent and it is clear why.

Simmering irrepressibly beneath the love quadrangle is alcoholism, a damning and serious issue. Though the tone fluctuates between frothy romance and light wit, the subject of alcoholism subconsciously rears every so often — it would, at the end of the day this is a piece about people working with drink and drinking after work — and Swanberg handles it well. He has to. Kate is definitely the serial gulp offender and it is consequently unsurprising that her personal life is the one falling apart. The director aptly manages said topic by raising awareness without stumbling into burdensome territory.

There is no avoiding the almost fatal error in Drinking Buddies’ narrative. The film’s strive to be authentic butts heads with its stubbornness when it comes to characters’ romantic tendencies. Put that to one side though, and Joe Swanberg’s light-hearted indierrific outing will certainly quench your thirst.

Drinking Buddies - Olivia Wilde & Jake Johnson

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Magnolia Pictures