Tag Archives: beautiful

Page and Screen: Flaubert’s cinematic Madame Bovary


Gustave Flaubert’s mid nineteenth century novel Madame Bovary might not appear all that remarkable if you read it today. At the time its focus on the limitations of marriage, along with its abundance of controversial ingredients like frequent and shameless adultery and suicide, made it a scandalous work of fiction. No doubt it would have been derided as deliberately explicit and shocking filth, masquerading as art, as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover would be around a century later. But today Flaubert is seen as the first truly modern novelist because with Madame Bovary he composed a recipe of ingredients that would be followed by countless storytellers, both on the page and the screen.

Read the blurb of Madame Bovary and its plot will resemble that of a lot of Victorian era fiction. The story follows Emma, a country girl living a simple life, whose charms captivate the young doctor who comes to treat her ailing father. The doctor is Charles Bovary, already a widower from an unsatisfying marriage. He and Emma marry and she becomes Madame Bovary. They move to the provincial small town of Yonville, where Charles takes a job. Holding such an important position in the intimate community, Charles and his wife become the centre of attention, be it from the atheistic chemist across the street with a high opinion of himself or the regulars at the inn. Emma quickly feels stifled by the rural and dreary existence, as well as her husband’s doting. She conducts two affairs, one with young clerk Leon and another with experienced seducer Rodolphe.

One of the ways in which Madame Bovary became a blueprint for the modern novel was its focus on the character development of Emma. It is often hailed as the first psychological novel because of this. Flaubert uses free indirect style to explore and articulate both Emma’s emotions and thoughts, be they gloomy, gleeful or giddy with romance. The technique allows the author to zoom in and out, at once using his own words and those that the character might use. Already we can see how this book not only inspired the form of later works but foreshadowed the methods of the filmmaker; sometimes sticking close to a character’s viewpoint, sometimes offering a broader overview of their actions and sometimes not seeing their actions at all.

Madame Bovary is cinematic in other ways too. Its entire structure is epic in the way that films often are, telling the story of a whole life, beginning at Charles Bovary’s school. In the early chapters we form an opinion of Charles as an ordinary but kind enough man, only to have this interpretation contrasted with Emma’s later bitterness towards him because of that very unsatisfying and indifferent kindness. This is another way the book is cinematic; it is constantly changing viewpoints amongst an ensemble cast. Despite the often intense focus on Emma’s romantic desires for meaning suppressed by bourgeois convention, we also regularly view Emma from the perspective of her lovers or the town chemist or some other figure. Cinema is constantly showing us how its main characters are seen by others to broaden our understanding of them.

Emma’s outlook on life is unquestionably romantic, some might say naive and neurotic, but it’s certainly passionate. However Madame Bovary was Flaubert’s masterpiece of realism, written to atone for what he saw as the excesses of his previous work The Temptation of Saint Anthony. One way in which the book achieved this realism was with its down to earth subject matter. Flaubert based the story on a marriage breakdown of the time and peppered it with themes from everyday French life, many of which still resonate today.

This was a novel about reality in which the main character read novels of escapism. This was a novel set in a simple setting that climaxes with Emma’s debts spiralling out of control, as she drowns in the luxuries purchased to sustain a dream life and fill the black hole left by her emotional emptiness. The ingredients are recognisable from everyday life but Flaubert ramps up the drama, just as producers, writers and directors do with films today, and storytellers have done for years. Grand language such as “she awakened in him a thousand desires” may match Emma’s desires for romantic fulfilment but is always counterbalanced by Flaubert’s realism. Throughout the novel, whenever Emma reaches a peak of ecstatic fulfilment, the decline begins shortly afterwards.

Much of Flaubert’s realist genius, diehard critics argue, cannot possibly translate from French to English without acquiring an air of clumsiness and familiarity. As James Wood points out in How Fiction Works, a sentence with magnificent and finely crafted rhythm in Flaubert’s native French, loses much of its magic in English. And if the translator tries to replicate the essence of the original too hard, he creates something laughable. “L’idée d’avoir engendré le délectait” becomes “The thought of having impregnated her was delectable to him” or if trying too hard “The notion of procreation was delectation”.

However Flaubert’s talent for precise and detailed description does translate and this is perhaps the most cinematic element of his realist style. Chapters will often begin with snapshots of detail or even lengthy passages really setting the scene of a particular room or place, sometimes incorporating a character’s mood and sometimes not. It might seem like an incredibly basic rule of storytelling, almost a childish one, to “set the scene” in this way, but Flaubert does so much more than just describe something. By selecting his details with the utmost care and deliberation, but seemingly effortlessly, he tells us everything we need to know about a scene.

At times he can do this incredibly concisely, with just a few telling details. One chapter, in which Emma has slipped away from Yonville to begin a love affair in the larger town of Rouen, begins like this:

They were three full, exquisite days – a real honeymoon.
They were at the Hotel de Boulogne, on the harbour; and they lived there, with drawn blinds and closed doors, with flowers on the floor, and iced syrups that were brought them early in the morning
”.

From our 21st century vantage point it’s very difficult to understand what upset the French so much when Flaubert was so tactful about his descriptions of sex and affairs. Very rarely does he resort to even explicitly describing a kiss.

Elsewhere he uses detail to paint lifelike pictures of minor characters, some of which, like this one, are never seen or mentioned again:

There, at the top of the table, alone among all these women, stooped over his ample plateful, with his napkin tied around his neck like a child, an old man sat eating, drops of gravy dribbling from his lips. His eyes were bloodshot and he had a little pigtail tied up with a black ribbon. This was the Marquis’s father-in-law, the old Duc de Laverdière, once the favorite of the Comte d’Artois.”

We can imagine a camera passing over a character such as this in a film, picking out the specific details Flaubert highlights, adding life to a scene and then moving on. Such descriptions have a quality James Wood terms “chosenness” whereby the author picks out a bunch of details that, together, give the most accurate and lifelike feeling of a person, place, object or action. This process is artificial, sometimes combining details from different time registers but writers like Flaubert make it appear natural. And film directors and editors do exactly the same thing. For example, when establishing the feel of a carnival, the editing process will cut together things happening at different times into one easily digestible chunk for the audience to swallow the best impression and mood of the scene.

Flaubert laid the foundations for new types of writing and storytelling that could marry the intentions of a realist and a stylist. It paved the way for novels that felt more journalistic with almost completely passive descriptions of people and places, from Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, packed with lists of brand names. Isherwood even makes this statement early on in Goodbye to Berlin: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Then later on this passage mirrors even more closely than Flaubert a reel of edited film:

The entrance to the Wassertorstrasse was a big stone archway, a bit of old Berlin, daubed with hammers and sickles and Nazi crosses and plastered with tattered bills which advertised auctions or crimes. It was a deep shabby cobbled street, littered with sprawling children in tears. Youths in woollen sweaters circled waveringly across it on racing bikes and whooped at girls passing with milk jugs”.

The children cannot be “in tears” all of the time. Isherwood has perfected the technique that Flaubert pushed out into the open, for all writers to follow as a guide. James Wood sums up the passage far more succinctly than I could: “The more one looks at this rather wonderful piece of writing, the less it seems a “slice of life”, or a camera’s easy swipe, than a very careful ballet.”

It’s easy to forget that films too are intricate, vast and complex operations. Action scenes that burst into life spontaneously in shopping centres or even a stroll down a street in a rom-com are intensely choreographed. The plan laid out for the modern novel in Madame Bovary, and for writing detail in particular, has left us with as many terribly overwritten books as good ones. And even awful films are carefully managed. But the artificiality of cherry picking the best moments in life and stitching them together can be art at its best; art telling little white lies for a grander, more meaningful truth.

In the mood for a romantic comedy – a distracted review of True Grit on DVD


I always eagerly watch the trailers before a film. The best snippets of releases that are “coming soon” can be tremendously exciting. There is also an art to making good and great trailers, with the best of them standing apart from the movies they promote or making a crap film look irresistible. Many movie buffs appreciate this. But more often than not I’ll be watching something with someone urging me to skip to the film we’re actually watching. When I’m fortunate enough to be in control of the remote, I always insist on watching the trailers, even when I’ve seen them dozens of times before.

The first trailer of quite a few before the menu screen on the True Grit DVD, was for Morning Glory, starring Rachel McAdams. I’m mildly interested in seeing this at some point because of a rather different comic role for Harrison Ford, the strange appeal of the breakfast show subject matter and the feminine charms of McAdams. She is cultivating a line in cheeky but likeable performances, with a turn in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and the news that she’s been cast as Lois Lane in the 2012 reboot of Superman. There’s also a shot of her rounded rear that does the film’s appeal no harm in my book.

Next up was the Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher rom-com No Strings Attached. I’ve read a lot about this movie, including some pretty hilarious but ultimately unflattering reviews. I’ve seen the trailer more than once. It’s part of a trend of stories trying far too hard to be modern, about “friends with benefits”. In the 21st century what is wrong about a man and a woman, who know and trust each other, having casual but enjoyable sex on a regular basis? Well the rom-com likes to point out that love is the big stumbling block; it always gets in the way when you least expect it. I mean it’s frankly just an inconvenient and inconsiderate emotion. We all ought to hate its lies, its deceit and its inevitably devastating consequences.

And yet it always conquers all. Even those like Portman and Kutcher’s characters, avoiding love like the plague by making sex a satisfying physical transaction, get bitten eventually by that pesky love bug. Cinemagoers too are always infected because soppy idiots fall for the obvious, predictable, signposted, cliche and crappy happy ending.

Today I must’ve been after a happy ending. I wasn’t really in the mood for Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar nominated True Grit. I was inexplicably captured by the trailer to No Strings Attached, which as I’ve said I’ve seen several times before and I’d long ago concluded I wasn’t bothered about seeing. Perhaps its my persistent crush on Natalie Portman’s pretty and sexy features. Perhaps its simply my starved and hungry libido. Or perhaps it’s a longing for the perfect emotional satisfaction of the romantic comedy.

Whenever there was a lull in the action of True Grit and I was no doubt supposed to be reflecting on or contemplating the rugged wild west landscape or the moral terrain of the story, my mind drifted into daydreams prompted by No Strings Attached. I don’t think a trailer has ever disturbed my enjoyment or concentration of the following film in quite the same way.  

I pondered again and again what would happen to the relationships I had with people now, how friendships would shatter, grow or change beyond recognition. I planned imaginary grand gestures and pictured the romantic epiphany when I realised that yes, she was the one. I imagined myself living a busy, varied and satisfying life. The social groups that encircled it would be populated exclusively by young and attractive people, and some of them, perhaps just one or two, would care about me. And I’d have lots of sex. In short: I surrendered to fantasy.

What does it mean to be a romantic nowadays? At times I am happy to embrace the label and at others I am disgusted by it, depending on my mood or the particular definition. Is Mattie Ross, the heart of True Grit, a romantic? Some might say that’s nonsense given her realistic and often pessimistic outlook, with a tough maturity well beyond her 14 years. But she is also idealistic about bringing her father’s killer to justice, about the intentions of the law, and indeed her naive and childlike distinction between evil and good men, proven simplistic by her choice of hero.

Maybe it’s the peculiary romantic, noble and heroic ideas of Ross that helped my wandering mind off track. It could equally be of course that the isolation of True Grit prodded my loneliness into creating deluded distraction. The Coens have certainly crafted a film with darker and deeper depths than the 1960s typical John Wayne outing.

True Grit can also be surprisingly warm though. Mattie Ross is a character it’s impossible not to invest in and care for. Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn as a cold and hardened gunslinger at times, and a hilarious layabout drunk at others. There’s some wonderfully teasing interplay and banter between him and Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf. And the dialogue at times evokes the homely West so vividly that you want to take a trip there away from the boring variety of British dialects by comparison.

True Grit is as not as “fast paced” as some of the quotes on the cover would have you believe. But it’s not a dreary, arty take on the Western, as many attempts at the genre are these days. Its runtime is agreeable and its characters playfully portrayed. There is a fairly snappy climax with some good action and shocks. And Hailee Steinfeld’s performance as Mattie is a truly remarkable breakthrough. The plaudits have mostly been lavished on Bridges but she is the real star and the glue holding True Grit together. Damon is good too.

It wasn’t a masterpiece of filmmaking. But then I was barely paying attention. I know should be talking in depth about a film that chose to adapt a novel’s true nature rather than remake a Hollywood classic badly. The Coens usually make great and intelligent cinema. So perhaps it was majestic; I was simply in the mood for a cruder and more direct, perhaps even a crap, tugging of my heart strings. Is that a crime?

I suspect it probably is.

 

Macho Antidotes to the Royal Wedding – Part 2: United on BBC iplayer


My second suggestion of anti-Royal Wedding medication for the ordinary man, following the sensational spectacle of Thor, is a single strong dose of BBC drama United, shown on Sunday and now available on iplayer. If Thor was grounded in fun fantasy then United is rooted firmly in poignant and period storytelling, of the sort the Beeb does so well. In fact with budget cuts beginning to bite, our national broadcaster has made it clear that quality dramas like United and The Crimson Petal and the White are the future of BBC2 in particular. If future projects are as good as these then it’s a wise as well as an economical decision.

United is the story of the tragic Munich air crash that killed most of Manchester United football club’s first team, as well as reporters and staff, after a successful European cup match in Belgrade. The squad’s flight was stopping over in a snowy Munich to refuel and the players and coaching staff were keen to return in time for their league game that weekend, and thus avoid a points deduction. For most football fans the catastrophe that cruelly cut short the life of so many of “Busby’s Babes” is the stuff of familiar legend. I have been a Manchester United fan since the age of 6 and was raised on the fairytales of pure footballers from both before the disaster and after it. The men directly touched by such devastating events forged the foundations for Manchester United to become the world famous and successful club it is today.

Rest assured though, United is a good drama and an absorbing watch, pure and simple. For those without the background in football heritage or even those that can’t tolerate the game, this is a captivating human story of careers, celebrity and comebacks. Most importantly this is an extremely British tale and the perfect anaesthetic for ears bleeding profusely because of the hypocritical and imbecilic and meaningless whining of Americans pleasuring themselves over the blandest, most lifeless 24 hour coverage of the exterior of Bucking-HAM palace.

Despite the subject matter United is not all doom and gloom. For over half an hour from the start we are welcomed into the heart of a football club going from strength to strength. But it’s not about the football; it’s about the characters at the club. We are treated to finely honed BBC costume drama detail, from the 1950s fashions, to the dressing room, to Old Trafford, the Theatre of Dreams itself, rendered lifelike with impressively unnoticeable CGI. Most pleasing of all is the delicious double act formed between David Tennant’s Welsh coach Jimmy Murphy and Dougray Scott’s understated but charismatic portrayal of United’s most celebrated manager, Matt Busby.

Most of the time, Tennant steals the show, as he does in almost everything he’s in. It is by no means one of the more important judges of an actor, but Tennant continually succeeds at accent after accent, this time believably carrying off the musical Welsh tongue. This role also allows him to show off other more vital aspects of his talent too though. He has tremendous fun motivating the players as a coach with vision and then more than copes with the emotional side to the story when the drama hits. The majority of Doctor Who fans may now be fully warming to Matt Smith but Tennant remains a class act and it’s actually refreshing to see him embracing parts as diverse and interesting as this one.

It’s fitting that United is mostly told from the perspective of a young Bobby Charlton. He’s now a Sir and a national treasure, but then he was just a lad that wanted to play football. And he ended up living through a harrowing and traumatic experience. Yet he came out the other side of it and was lucky enough to have been part of the great team before the crash, and the even greater side built from the ashes. Jack O’Connell, who plays the young Charlton here, does a really good job whether he’s stumbling through the plane’s ripped ruins and grimacing at explosions, practicing on the pitch or gazing up in awe at the stadium.

As a production United really does ooze quality. The acting is top notch, the music is touching and the directing beautiful, particularly at the snowy crash site itself and in the dressing rooms. It also deals sensitively with an immensely emotive issue. The question of blame is delicately raised and wisely the film does not nail its opinion to any specific interpretation. Some will blame those who were desperate to play abroad and then make it back home in time for the league match, and indeed Busby blamed himself. Some will blame the league officials who refused to grant a postponement to the fixture after United’s European trip. Some will insist the officials at the airport and the mechanics and the pilots should have taken more care. But the sensible will just accept the terrible tragedy of it all. The enormous grief.

Of course the overwhelming and important cost of the crash was the human one, with so many young men dead. Their families and girlfriends and mates were robbed of their lives prematurely. As a drama United undoubtedly tells that tale. It often seems callous, stupid and emotionally ignorant to talk of the cost to the game of football. I call myself a football fan but much of the time the game leaves me unmoved. I do not live and breathe the game, I no longer care greatly as I used to as a child when one of my favoured teams does poorly. It takes a great occasion or an unusually interesting story, or an exciting match with beautiful passages of play, to truly ignite my interest these days. But there certainly was a significant cost to the game of football after the Munich crash, and it was a cost that mattered almost as much as the loss of their lives. United tells that story too.

It mattered that such a great and talented team was almost completely wiped out, because it mattered to them. It would have mattered to those that died and it mattered to those left behind. It mattered to the fans that mourned them and even the people that knew them. It’s too easy to talk with nostalgia of how football used to be, with starting elevens as opposed to giant squads and meagre salaries and basic training pitches; the modern game is too often ignorantly slated as excessive junk. Watching United though you can see the appeal of that nostalgia, of an old school approach brimming with romance, you can understand those who knew it firsthand ranting and raving at the money making machine that’s replaced it.

Nowadays you wouldn’t get Tennant’s character, a first team coach, ringing round top flight clubs begging for players in the aftermath of a disaster so that the locals could see a game and to maintain the winning philosophy of a club. It just wouldn’t be possible. Or necessary. You wouldn’t get a fairytale quite as magical as the one that swept a ramshackle team, comprised of youngsters and amateur unknowns, to the F.A. Cup Final at Wembley just months after the crash.

I’m not ashamed to admit I cried watching United. I might have been predisposed to an outpouring of emotion because United stirred up a long since cooled love in me for the beautiful game. But I defy anyone not to be moved by such excellent acting, such accurate portrayals of grief and commitment and passion. I have been reminded by United that anything, be it art, table tennis or cartoons, that takes you out of yourself and absorbs you, helping you to forget pain and grief completely just for a moment, is a worthwhile and admirable activity. Something worth fighting for.

The Royal Wedding is more likely to make me vomit than get teary but I know it would be more acceptable to sob down the pub over the achievements of football greats than the nuptials of a posh Prince. So when the women are welling up at the sight of a dress or a bouquet, tell them you’re not dead inside you’d just rather save your sympathy and admiration for real royalty.

I Saw The Devil


It will be a day of unforgettable celebration. The nation will rejoice in a night of endless partying and universal happiness, or so they’d have you believe. The flags and the bunting will sway proudly in the sunshine in the streets, on the most iconic landmarks and the grandest stately homes. All our troubles will be forgotten, swept under the carpet, out of sight and out of mind. Everything will be the best of British; sweet, comforting and clockwork. As the fizz flows and the glasses chink, polite patriotism will give way to unparalleled scenes of euphoria. Derelict dance moves will stumble drunkenly from graves and tombs long since sealed. Like it or not, success or failure, it will be a date etched on the face of history.

Friday the 29th of April: Wills and Kate shall finally tie the knot. I wouldn’t say I fall into the “like it” or the “not” category. Instead I’d jump in with what I sense to be the quiet, grunting majority; the “don’t give a shit” group. Most of these people will be happy to use the Royal Wedding as an excuse to get “frightfully merry” but I’m not even fussed about that. I’ll just be glad when they bugger off on honeymoon and everyone calms down.

The long awaited date also happens to herald the release of Korean revenge thriller I Saw The Devil. It will hit selected cinemas as the happy couple say their vows and head rapidly to DVD and Blu-Ray for the 9th of May, when I assume they’ll still be relaxing on a lavish honeymoon. I have a feeling that honeymooners in general, not just those benefiting from pure and perfect blood, will steer clear of this one though. That’s unless they are devoted fans of Korean filmmaking or lashings and lashings of gore, or prefer a particularly sick and dirty tinge to the consummation of their holy joining. 

I Saw The Devil is the tale of a serial killer and one specific family he devastates. It begins with a beautiful young girl trapped in her broken down car in the snow. Sounds predictable right? Well I Saw The Devil will continually take seemingly generic set ups like this and make them raw, real and surprising. The refreshing thing about this opening scene was the phone conversation between the girl and her fiancé, who will become the film’s “hero”.

I can never really relate to characters and protagonists like him. He is a slick and successful high flyer with a super cool job (a secret agent in this case). He is so busy and absorbed in his immensely interesting and important work, that he has little time for the woman he is with; a woman he is lucky enough to love and have this love reciprocated. I’m a man with time on my hands, with ordinary clothes and standard prospects, for whom love is usually a one way street. Add into the mix a ruthless ability to kill and a purposeful crusade for revenge and this is the sort of man I fantasise about being; not one I can readily empathise with.

And yet as I Saw The Devil embarks on an unlimited chase through as many deadly sins as possible, prompting comparisons with such notorious projects as Antichrist and endless cuts on the editing room floor, it keeps the moral implications of its action in focus. It’s not simply your typical revenge thriller but a thoughtful one that questions the nature of revenge. Our secret agent swiftly catches the killer of his beloved, only for him to decide that a monster deserves a monstrous death. Butchering him would cause the beast no real distress, so a tracking device is popped in his mouth and the hunter becomes the hunted.

The ethics of this are clearly dubious and as the killer rampages the Korean James Bond wishes he’d ended it when he had the chance at times. But despite my inability to relate to characters of his ilk, the audience sees the twisted emotional logic behind every move he makes. True justice and true revenge is necessarily brutal when confronted with such soulless savagery.

This is a beautiful film as well as a shocking, horrifying and thrilling one. In its opening chapter alone there are numerous stills that would warrant a frame and a prominent place on a wall. The score does a wonderful job of evoking grief, fear, anger and terror. Prior to watching I Saw The Devil, I had heard about a controversial rape scene during which the victim begins to “enjoy” things. This led to even more debate and conflict over its age rating and release than the countless bloody violence. In terms of morality it is the most questionable scene in the movie, but it did not spoil it.

The film could have done with being a little shorter but I was never bored. Things reach a suitably dramatic climax and the whole thing is well paced. But for me a scene from the film’s opening is the most memorable. It’s just as the girl’s body is being discovered and the forensic teams, hounded by the press, swoop on a spot in some marshes to bag and remove her decapitated head. Flash bulbs erupt and officers shout and the head is knocked from the hands of the forensic team. It rolls shamefully in the dirt. The grieving father and fiancé look on aghast.

 It may be over the top but this scene captured something real about the growing phenomenon of the serial killer. In many ways such barbaric deeds are now common place news and the only way to keep the true horror of it all in focus is to focus on the families and friends. Those who really feel the pain. I Saw The Devil is a gripping illustration of what emotional pain can do to a human being. Life never ends with a fluffy wedding dress or a cup of a tea.

Kick Ass Assassins: Salt on Blu-Ray and The American on DVD


The world lacks a female super spy. Angelina Jolie has perhaps come closer than most to filling the void with her all action portrayal of sexy video game Tomb Raider Lara Croft, but this was ultimately more Indiana Jones than James Bond. Last year Phillip Noyce’s Cold War conspiracy thriller Salt, originally earmarked for Tom Cruise, morphed into a very different project altogether with the casting of Jolie as CIA agent Evelyn.

I may be veering into sexism here, but because of Jolie’s casting my expectations were drastically lowered. However I’ll defend myself with two qualifications; firstly I think of Jolie as more than merely an internationally coveted sexual icon, but as a fine and capable actress, particularly after her powerhouse performance in Clint Eastwood’s excellent Changeling. Secondly I believe I expected disappointment because of the film industry’s own sexist view of women playing action leads, rather than my own narrow and intolerant perspective on the “fairer sex”.

What I mean by this is that women rarely seem to be cast in serious mainstream action films. They’re a common feature in action comedies, such as the dire Knight and Day and Jolie’s own light-hearted romp with her equally famous and sexy spouse in Mr and Mrs Smith. But there’s no realistic and gripping female equivalent to the Bourne series, for example. Filmmakers are reluctant to showcase women, even today, as ruthless and professional killers without elements of fantasy. Watch a film about what is essentially a paid, female murderer (a “hitwoman”) and expect lots of ninja style, silly high kicking and unbelievable martial arts, alongside tight costumes, to offset such a horrific notion.

Sadly this is a formula that Salt eventually and perhaps inevitably, conforms to. The opening of the film is promising. Once we get some god awful dialogue out the way, probably ripped straight from the “how to script a film in the espionage genre” handbook, along with some forced flashbacks, we get Salt interrogating an apparent Russian defector. He drops the bombshell that there’s a sleeper agent in the CIA, and that agent is called Evelyn Salt.

Salt is dismissive at first, but all the high tech brain scans and probably some ingenious pad questioning his balls from his seat, says that he’s telling the truth. After a bit of dithering Salt decides to run, apparently out of concern for her husband, but it still seems rather daft if she really is innocent. Once she does run however, it looks as if Salt is going to be a decent film.

With the shadowy, backstabbing premise of the plot and some tense evasion of security cameras by a grey suited Jolie, Salt seems very Bourne-esque at first. And a female Bourne film would not have been such a bad thing. Boxed into an interrogation room, Salt constructs a makeshift weapon from chemicals and chairs and table legs to allow her to escape. She then flees for home to look for her husband and just avoids capture by climbing around the outside of her building. Finally she escapes the city after a standoff by jumping from truck to truck on the freeway.

During all of this action it’s easy to get swept up and the character remains believable. You sympathise with her apparent innocence and will her to succeed. But once Salt heads to New York based on information that someone will attempt to kill the Russian President at the Vice President’s funeral, the plot completely loses its way. It utterly surprised me on several occasions but purely because it becomes so absolutely ludicrous. You can no longer relate to Salt as a character and the action degenerates into ninja Jolie implausibly kicking the asses of trained security personnel in seconds.

At first I thought it was refreshing that Salt was a spy thriller based on the old Cold War rivalries and tensions. Cinemagoers could do with a little more entertainment courtesy of grand, evil schemes, rather than grim and realistic takes on Al-Qaeda. There’s nothing wrong with fantastical plots based on extravagant conspiracies and the destruction of the world, providing they’re executed plausibly. But Salt is just too farfetched and has too many holes, mainly surrounding the believability of its characters. It also strays into the absurd and hilarious; supposedly a “master of disguise” Salt looks fairly obviously like Angelina Jolie dressed as an effeminate man infiltrating the White House.

As usual with Blu-Rays, there’s a whole host of meaty special features to devour about the making of Salt. There’s a baffling section on Salt’s supposed genius as a “master of disguise” and a separate “in screen” interview with the costume designer explaining the selection process behind Jolie’s grey suit earlier in the film. Apparently it was really beneficial to visit the CIA and presumably discover they wear boring and generic corporate power suits like everyone else. The most revealing sections are interviews with Noyce and Jolie about the fact Salt was originally written for a man, which might account for some of the script’s rough and unfinished feel.

There are some pleasing references to classics of the genre in the film, for example when “defector” Orlov escapes using a blade concealed in his shoe, like Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love. But in the end Salt resembles a mishmash parody of everything it has taken influence from. It lacks originality, quality and entertainment for most of its thankfully brief 100 minute runtime.

THE AMERICAN is the sort of serious and sombre story that sadly wouldn’t get made with a woman in the title role. It’s a slow-burning meditation on the nature of being an assassin and on loneliness itself. It’s an exercise in minimalist storytelling from writer Rowan Joffe, adapting Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, and particularly, director Anton Corbijn. With the lightest of brush strokes he paints what was, for me, an incredibly evocative and captivating picture. 

I had meant to see The American on the big screen but sadly its lack of success at the box office resulted in a short stay at my local multiplex. For critics the problem with The American is that it never truly ignites following such a tantalisingly drawn out simmering of tension. Many find it boring to sit through. But for anyone that loves the genre, the intoxicating idea of the lone assassin, or anyone that likes understated and subtle films, The American is wonderfully watchable.

In many ways George Clooney shouldn’t work in the title role. He is such a recognisable face across the globe, a brand rather than a name, that he shouldn’t convince as an unknown and elusive assassin. But Corbijn needed someone who could act without words and Clooney delivers a master class. When there is dialogue Clooney enthuses it with charisma; it oozes enigmatic intrigue. When the camera is entirely reliant on Clooney’s movements a pained expression, a cold glance or a precise gesture speaks more than a page of script ever could.  This has been hailed by some as the best performance of Clooney’s career for a reason. We’ve never seen him laid bare like this; robbed of the charm and the cheeky grin.

More than anything else The American is beautiful. Its soundtrack is haunting, atmospheric and touching. Every other shot would make an arty still in a gallery; in Corbijn’s second picture after the acclaimed biopic Control, his background as a photographer is constantly evident. Clooney’s character chooses photography as his cover and there’s something about the parallels of precise skill and solitude between pictures and killing that’s endlessly fascinating. Indeed the subtlety of the storytelling really lets you think about its themes whilst enjoying the gorgeous visuals and the sexy girls.

The loneliness of existence is there in every furrow of Clooney’s focused face; the life of the assassin is the perfect lens for examining anyone’s existential angst. His character makes meagre relationships that wouldn’t satisfy many human beings, and yet they prove too much and too risky for his secretive profession. Despite the reports of boredom and never-ending build-up, I thought that the restrained action punctuated the plot well and the climax of the simple story was suitably engrossing.

In many ways Salt and The American both take “old school” approaches to a familiar genre; Salt with its outlandish Cold War plot and The American with its focus on an age old character, complete with soul searching scenes with a priest. The undoubted difference between the films though is a sumptuous and sexy style and quality that makes The American infinitely more interesting than Jolie’s briefly entertaining foray into the world of espionage.

A History of Violence


(some spoilers)

I was keen to see A History of Violence, but I also sat down to watch it with trepidation. The title of this film had me envisaging a brutal compilation of some of history’s goriest moments or something similarly horrific like a serial killer’s holiday snaps. Director David Cronenberg had a reputation from what I’d heard, as he followed up the success of this film with hard-hitting gangster story Eastern Promises, containing its own controversial fight scenes. I haven’t much stomach for excessive blood and guts.

 The opening scene was indeed chilling; brilliantly so. From the very start A History of Violence declares itself to be a film that will give its actors room to act, its story room to grow and unsettle, and yet with a runtime of 96 minutes it’s no tedious slow-burner.  The action kicks-off at detailed walking pace, with two shady but calm types loitering outside a motel. They exchange perfectly ordinary, mundane words. One of them disappears inside whilst the other moves the car a little further along. Then we see which man wears the trousers as the driver’s ordered to go and get water from the cooler in reception.

Inside he dawdles, the camera slowly following his casual, deliberate movements. Then he nonchalantly passes the bloody scene of carnage behind the counter to fill up his container with water. By this point the tension’s been skilfully raised to breaking point. A crying girl appears, clutching a soft toy. The man freezes. The gentle manner he adopts to reassure her, to stop her running or screaming, makes you wonder if he’s a reluctant pawn in a criminal world. Or at least he has enough heart to keep children out of his messy business. But then he gradually reaches for his gun.

The next scene starts with a girl waking from a bad dream, worrying about monsters. Viggo Mortensen appears to comfort his child, instantly establishing himself in the caring everyman role he played so well in The Road. He tells her: “There’s no such thing as monsters”. And yet the inhuman calculating coolness we saw in the preceding scene lingers hauntingly, encouraging the audience to feel differently.

The first twenty minutes of A History of Violence following its disturbing opening scene, caught me off guard for their ordinariness. Mortensen’s character Tom Stall is a simple country soul, running his store and looking out for his family. Far from being dull these establishing scenes are touching and add to the meaning of later events. Stall’s relationship with his wife, played by Maria Bello, is tenderly romantic and loving despite the length of the marriage. His daughter is cute, his friends and colleagues kind and his teenage son remarkably perceptive and intelligent for his age.

But then a handful of fleeting moments change everything. The thugs we saw at the start of the film turn up at Stall’s diner and proceed to terrorise his staff and customers. Reacting instinctively Stall intervenes to save everyone and inadvertently catapults himself to fame. His picture covers the town’s paper alongside the headline, “Local Hero”.

At this point A History of Violence’s title starts to make sense, as the film becomes a meditation on the consequences and ethics of violence. We’ve already seen some High School moments in which Stall’s son, played by Ashton Holmes, rose above the aggressive taunts of the sports hot-shot. Now Stall tries to deal with the accompanying trauma of killing a man, two men, in unforgettable close-up fashion. His family and the community rally round to comfort him. We never see the reasons behind the thugs’ killings. Cronenberg is careful to make most of the violence purely about how it makes a deep, repressed part of some people feel; how it satisfies them.

With the unwelcome arrival of more mobsters to Stall’s quiet town, the plot takes another unexpected twist. The story shifts from a thoughtful exploration of the nature of violence, to tense suffocation as the gangsters stalk Stall’s family, to suspicion and confusion as ghosts surface from Stall’s past. It’s all marvellously subtle, but hints from earlier in the film begin to make sense. Those establishing scenes really were good as you hope with Stall’s family that the demons go away. But of course they don’t.

The acting is superb. Mortensen and Bello are not just excellent as a couple early on in the idyllic stages, but wonderfully convincing and captivating later as destructive events unravel. There are memorable cameos from William Hurt and Ed Harris. The way the performers completely inhabit their characters ensures A History of Violence works masterfully as a gripping, suspenseful and action packed thriller, as well as an insightful film questioning ideas like the American Dream, identity, relationships, humanity and the past.

And the cherry on top of a filling, tasty and sumptuous slice of movie cake is a final scene as stylish, patient, subtle and moving as the opening one. If you haven’t seen A History of Violence, do so soon. It was not at all what I expected it to be and well worth a watch. Don’t be put off by the title or the 18 certificate because ultimately it’s a first-rate and surprising story. It won’t mentally scar you, merely make you think.