During October, the capital has been host to the 55th BFI London Film Festival. Whilst not as big as Cannes or Sundance, the London festival has grown to be a major event on the circuit. So much so, that due to the many and varied demands of the world’s media, Jaded Eye was somehow overlooked – I guess our press pass must have been lost in the post. Undeterred, I managed to pay my way into a few of the offerings on show this year.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Marked by a headline grabbing performance from Elizabeth Olsen, MMMM weaves the dark tale of a young girl called Martha, trying to reintegrate into normal society after leaving a cult that had dominated her life for an unspecified amount of time. She moves in with her elder sister and her husband but continues to be haunted by flashbacks of her time in with the cult, which we see in the film. Lead by the charismatic and dangerous Patrick, the women of the group are totally subservient to the men. They maintain the farmhouse and cook and clean – they are not allowed to eat until the men have finished. Patrick gives each of the women different names upon their arrival, to further disassociate them from their former lives – therefore Martha becomes Marcy May. This helps to centre the complex flashback structure a little but not much.
Early scenes are haunting but a lack of structure or forward momentum harms the film. It felt more like a mood piece than a narrative tale. As that, it succeeds in creating dread and discomfort. Martha’s time away from “civilisation” has clearly damaged her as she mindlessly spouts statements word for word that Patrick lectured her with previously. But it never really builds to a crescendo, either narratively or emotionally. There’s no clear middle or ending, just a sequence of events that likely could have been re-cut into an entirely different order with little effect on the overall film.
The cast are uniformly excellent. Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy provide sterling support as Matha’s sister and her husband, while John Hawkes is suitability charismatic as the cult leader Patrick; but all give way to Olsen’s central performance – a stunning portrayal of a woman broken down in seclusion trying to readapt to the outside world. The final product really comes across as little more than an actor’s showcase rather than a coherent tale: given its limited cast and locations, it may have worked better as a play (although asking an actress to suffer through the Martha role in 6-7 performances a week might be asking too much). First time writer-director Sean Durkin demonstrates skill extracting excellent performances out of his actors: now he just needs some pointers in narrative structure.
We need to talk about Kevin
Another film to use the Reservoir Dogs-esque structure of both flashbacks and flash-forwards; WNTTAK tells the story of a mother driven to despair and partial madness by the appalling actions of her son one fateful night. We see both her desperate attempts to live a normal life after the event, and snapshots of the family’s growth up to the tragedy. And like Tarantino’s landmark debut, we see almost nothing of the event itself. You think you know what has happened but you’re never given the full details until the end, which still manages to shock. Before then, we’re introduced to Eva. Living alone in a broken down old house, she goes about her life as if in a trance, barely able to deal with anyone around her. Particularly as anyone she meets abuses her – either verbally or physically, blaming her for the actions of her son.
The colour red plays a significant role throughout the film. In the opening, Eva is shown as a young woman at the Bunyol Tomato festival and shortly afterwards, the “current day” Eva has her house and car daubed in red paint. Whenever the colour appears, it’s threatening; hinting at the dark events to come. A general aura of foreboding seeps from every frame of the film, thanks to both stunning shot composition and a fantastic sound edit. Even more crucially, the film also manages to portray a feeling of real people struggling to deal with extraordinary circumstances. Is there a moral to all this pain? Some might read it as warning to liberal parents failing to control their children, whilst others might see a lecture about the dangers of the society we live in, but ultimately it is left deliberately ambiguous.
Tilda Swinton is terrific as Eva – gone is the majesty and grandeur that you normally associate with this actor, replaced by a broken woman, driven to the edge. Ezra Miller is rightly getting plaudits as the titular Kevin, although I feel his is a far easier role to play. It’s great to see John C. Reilly back in a serious role, even if he is somewhat underused as Eva’s husband Franklin. Unlike MMMM, WNTTAK presents an actual story with a logical beginning, middle and end. Nothing is wrapped up into a nice little ball by the conclusion but there is a feeling that things have progressed. Writer-Director Lynne Ramsay has fashioned a haunting, powerful and moving film: I left the cinema in a daze.
Significantly bigger budget fare from director Roland Emmerich with Anonymous – a film built on a simple premise: what if William Shakespeare was a fraud? Framed as a play, introduced by Derek Jacobi (who, for no discernable reason, is shown arriving at the theatre just in the nick of time), we’re introduced to struggling playwright Ben Jonson running to escape the militia of 17th Century London. He is captured and questioned – his accuser wanting to know what happened to the remaining written plays of Edward de Vere. This is the launching point for yet another flashback/forward tale, one considerably more complex (or less clearly constructed) than ewither MMMM or WNTTAK. The thesis of this story being that Shakespeare was an illiterate actor who chanced about the opportunity to publish the works of Edward de Vere, who was the real talented writer. His reasons for anonymity? A plot to stop James VI of Scotland from succeeding Queen Elizabeth I as monarch of England.
“Faction” dramas – fictional stories built around real people and places are fairly commonplace now and Anonymous uses all the usual tricks of patchworking documented historical events with dramatic licence. Sadly, it also commits one of the more common sins: black and white characters. The good guys are noble, heroic, believing that the pen is mightier than the sword, while the baddies are cowardly schemers; working in the shadows whilst employing the full might of the army. This makes the story far less convincing than it could have been, although it might also create a few surprises in the denouement – at least for those with even less grasp of history than me.
The budget of Anonymous would likely cover MMMM and WNTTAK several times over, but it’s nevertheless put to good use. The CGI/built set recreations of old London town are stunning, full bird’s eye views of the Tower, London Bridge, The Globe Theatre and surrounding streets give the film an authentic feel of the time and place. The performances are solid, if constrained by the cardboard characters – Rhys Ifans in the lead role of de Vere seems to be screaming to be let loose! Special mention should go to Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson; playing the older and young Queen Elizabeth I – both are excellent as the famous monarchy.
Ironically, the best bits of the film might be the re-enactments of the plays themselves. They capture the excitement of seeing such work performed for the first time in front of noble men and peasants, to the extent that all the political shenanigans going on around them struggle to match. As a work of fiction, Anonymous is an entertaining if forgettable romp. As an attempt to plant the seeds of doubt around the veracity of Shakespeare’s work, well; it’s about as convincing an argument as the Da Vinci Code made about Christianity!