The Wife


The Nobel Prize for Literature must be considered a kind of practical joke, played by the usually humorless Swedes on a gullible literary world that eagerly and mistakenly covets it. Among the writers who did not win it: Tolstoy, Ibsen, Twain, Conrad, Wells, Henry James, Proust, Joyce, Dreiser, Lawrence, Cather, Wharton, Woolf, Frost, Stevens, Auden, Nabokov, Borges. Among those who did: Sully Prudhomme, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Wladyslaw Raymont, J.V. Jensen, Frans Sillanpää, and a few dozen other people you’ve never heard of. Deserving writers do sometimes get it, but if prizes were given for prizes, the Nobel Prize for Literature would win the Nobel Prize for Unforced Errors.


In The Wife, a superb movie with an unforgettable performance by Glenn Close, and the first English-language film by the Swedish director Bjorn Runge, the joke becomes transcendent irony. The famous American novelist who wins the prize didn’t really write any of his novels. On his own, he couldn’t even have gotten them published. His wife secretly did all the real writing.


I’m not committing a spoiler by telling you this, because the early hints of it solidify into certainty before the movie is half over. What makes the movie suspenseful is the ticking time bomb of the wife’s stifled ambitions, injured dignity, and cumulative resentment, registered at first only in facial expressions that barely break the surface of her reserved, placid demeanor. It is a very well-written movie, with a strong screenplay by Jane Anderson based on a novel of the same title by Meg Wolitzer, but Close carries it home with a performance that should get her the Oscar that she should already have won (the Nobels aren’t the only dubious awards).


The movie starts in the middle of the night, at a big house in Connecticut, where Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), a bearded, aging, volatile American novelist, can’t sleep because he’s been nominated for the Nobel and the call would have to come on this night. If he doesn’t get it, he says to his wife, Joan, to hell with it—they’ll just hide out in a cabin in Maine to avoid the consolation calls. But the call comes, in painfully polite, Swedish-accented English. At a celebratory party, Joe gives effusive credit to Joan, for making it all possible with her love and support, while she is carrying the trays full of champagne glasses for the adoring guests gathered around him. He adds that she isn’t herself a writer.


In flashbacks, we quickly find out that this was never the case. The movie, taking place in 1992, goes back to Smith College in 1958, where the young Joe (Harry Lloyd) is an intense, somewhat pretentious writing teacher, and the young Joan (Annie Stark, who in real life is Glenn Close’s daughter) is his most talented student. She’s already written some promising short stories.


She’s quiet, a little unsure of herself. Joe’s marriage has gone sour, and he soon leaves it behind for Joan. There’s a mutual attraction, and eventually a seemingly successful, well-upholstered marriage with two kids, but why did she give up her own literary career? A crucial scene is set at Smith, in which a bitter, chain-smoking middle-aged writer named Elaine Mozell (Elizabeth McGovern, best known for her role in Downton Abbey) tells her that the deck is stacked against women writers—the male publishers, editors, critics ignore them, and her advice about writing to the young, admiring Joan is shockingly blunt: “Give it up.”


On the plane to a wintry Stockholm to take part in the Nobel ceremony, Joe and Joan are accompanied by their grown son, David, whose resentment of Joe’s brusque, self-centered obliviousness is more out in the open than Joan’s—he can’t get his father to say an encouraging word about his own attempts at fiction.


Also on the plane is a journalist named Nathanial Bone (Christian Slater) who wants to write a biography of the famous writer. Joe rudely repels his ingratiating approaches. But Bone, an insinuating, weasel-like character that Slater’s performance nails, won’t go away, and over drinks with Joan in Stockholm he reveals that he has found her early stories, and they sound more like Joe’s later fiction than Joe’s own early stories. She eludes his suspicions with icy, contemptuous politesse, but they awaken something in her.


There are other ironies in store in Stockholm. At the required rehearsals for the ceremony, the scientific Nobel laureates seem to inhabit their own planet. Joan is expected to join the other prizewinners’ wives for shopping excursions and beauty treatments. Joe flirts with a young, attractive Swedish photographer (Karin Franz Körlof) who has been assigned to follow him around, and it’s clear that this fits into a long pattern of his extramarital affairs.

The explosion—Joan’s explosion—comes after Joe’s speech at the royalty-hosted ceremonial dinner, and it’s mesmerizing, but the movie’s power lies in its subtlety—it doesn’t hand you Joan’s motives or anything else on a platter or give you a crudely triumphant ending. It isn’t in the galvanizing message business. It’s about the secrecy and sadness of real life.



Ten-Minute Plays


The annual Ten-Minute Play Festival at the Actors Theatre Playhouse in Chesterfield, N.H., one of the most engaging summer theater offerings in the area (and in one of the most picturesque locations), has come up with a particularly good crop of mini-plays this year, seven in all.


My favorite this time was David Sussman’s Film Appreciation, in which a young woman named Trisha (Stephanie Globus-Hoenich) meets Brian (Ryan Buck) at a Fellini film. She begins to notice that his whole conversation, including seductive overtures, consists of film dialogue… “I’ll have what she’s having”… “Go ahead, make my day”... “I’m making you an offer you can’t refuse,” etc. But she falls for him anyway, until she can’t stand the unrelieved life-as-a-movie anymore and asks him to leave. Then she dates three other guys (all played by Ian Hefele). One is a musician obsessed with jazz standards who talks in song titles (“Nice work if you can get it,” etc.). She promptly drops him, and the next guy is an actor who is all Shakespeare allusions, and finally an abstracted young man who communicates only in philosophical concepts and quotes. She concludes that men, who can’t help framing everything in the language of their obsessions, are just weird. And maybe life is a movie after all, so she goes back to the film guy, who remarks, “The troubles of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” adding, “And stop calling me Shirley!” (channeling, respectively, Casablanca and Airplane).


Damien Licata is outstanding in two other plays, John Greiner-Ferris’s Taking Up Space (where he’s paired with Cris Parker Jennings) and Tom Coash’s Kamasutra (with Carrie Kidd). The first is a New York comic melodrama (though the location isn’t specified) centered on that most precious and sought-after of city treasures, a parking space, with Licata playing an exasperated unemployed Archie Bunker type with an outer-borough accent and Jennings as his patient but tactfully lucid waitress wife. The second offers a late-middle-age couple on vacation in India, confronting the erotic sculptures ornamenting a Hindu temple. He sells mobile homes in New Jersey, she mistakenly thought India might rekindle their love life, he thinks it’s costing him $10,000 to go 10,000 miles in order to be eaten by mosquitos. Imagine something like Tony Soprano, complete with pot belly and sarcasm, in India and you’ve got it—and it makes a delightful comic sketch.


It’s a little harder to elicit emotional resonance than to bring off parody or farce in ten minutes, but a couple of the plays manage it, especially James Walczy’s Dear Susan Love Harold, about an old man (Ray Mahoney) who finds, hidden in a box in her closet, love letters addressed to his wife (Carrie Kidd) of forty years, evidence of an early extramarital fling, he suspects. The irony here, when it emerges, is poignant. Something of the same effect is achieved in Myra Slotnick’s Forget Me Not, a nice turning of the tables between callow youth and fussy age.

One of the pleasures of this multiple-short-play format is the abrupt transition from one little dramatic microcosm to the next, each pulling you in in its own way. You leave each scenario a bit regretfully—so short a visit!—but the sharp writing,  acting, and direction conspire to immediately immerse you without protest in the next. The performances on June 15-16 are the last, unfortunately, and it’s worth making whatever last-minute, or ten-minute, plans are necessary to catch them.



Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool


If you are a fan of film noir, you will recognize the name of Gloria Graham. She wasn’t exactly a femme fatale, she didn’t have that kind of allure. Her prettiness was slightly weak or off-key, making her look a little devious, as if there was something hidden, whether malice or vulnerable innocence, beneath the surface. She was the bad girl maybe not quite so bad, the good girl with a trick or two up her sleeve.


I
n one great but often neglected film noir, Sudden Fear (1952), she played the accomplice of Jack Palance as he plots to murder Joan Crawford, his new, wealthy bride. In Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953), she gets involved in a double game between Glenn Ford’s vengeful ex-cop, who sees in her a resemblance to his murdered wife, and her sadistic gangster boyfriend, Lee Marvin.  In Nicholas Ray’s masterpiece, In a Lonely Place (1950), her quiet ambiguity matches up with the more volatile ambiguity of her neighbor, the hard-drinking, burnt-out screenwriter played by Humphrey Bogart. She won an Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), where she’s one of the characters badly used by Kirk Douglas’s ruthless Hollywood producer.


Her personal life, which included a marriage both to Ray and then to his son from a previous marriage, was troubled, and it caught up with her. She was having a hard time getting work. But alone in London, in the late 1970s, staying in a decrepit rooming house, she met a young actor named Peter Turner, and they quickly fell into an unlikely but passionate, sometimes contentious, sometimes lyrical affair that was all too soon cut short by a diagnosis of breast cancer—she died at the age of 57. The film is based, title and all, on Turner’s memoir.

 

Jamie Bell, best known for Billy Elliot (2000), plays Peter, and Annette Bening is glorious as Gloria. She looks enough like her and gets her distinctive voice right, and she should have at least been nominated for an Oscar. Turner introduces her to his baffled, awestruck, abrasive lower-middle-class family in Liverpool, and she in turn takes Peter to New York, where she has an apartment, and California, where she has a beachside cottage (and where there’s an encounter with her aged British mother, in a brief but potent appearance by Vanessa Redgrave). Gloria ends up staying again with Peter’s family in Liverpool after she begins getting sick.


It could be just a sad movie, a former star unwilling to face the end of her career who discovers that she is also near the end of her life, and it is poignant enough, but not all that dark—it’s sometimes funny, always engaging, and ultimately a tribute to renewed life, to movies, and to May-December romances with the usual gender equation reversed. I saw it in New York in January; as of this writing, it’s playing in Keene, New Hampshire, where it should be caught by any nearby film noir and Hollywood Golden Age devotees.





Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri begins with a film noir atmosphere—a snakepit of a small town, razor-sharp dialogue, bitter resentments, sinister strangers, unsolved, unpunished crimes—and ends not in pitch-black noir but ambiguous shades of gray. Ambiguity counts here as a happy ending.


Characters who look like stereotypes at first glance make unexpected moves and turn out to be something more elusive—more mixed up, more real. Frances McDormand, in her best role since winning an Oscar for Fargo, plays Mildred Hayes, a divorced mother of two whose teenaged daughter has been raped and murdered. After more than a year with no arrests, she puts up messages on three unused billboards at the edge of the small Missouri hill town of Ebbing, taunting William Willoughby, the popular local police chief (Woody Harrelson) for not finding the rapist-murderer.


Harrelson is perfect as the wry, imperturbable Willoughby, more than a match for McDormand’s relentless Mildred, the unmovable object to her unstoppable force. At first you think he’s going to be outraged at being publicly shamed and will find some way to take revenge or at least take down the billboards. Instead, he is the movie’s pillar of forbearance and seasoned wisdom. Revenge becomes the shady business of his out-of-control deputy, Dixon (Sam Rockwell).  


Mildred is a woman possessed. In front of her embarrassed but resigned son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), she insults a local minister who had come to tell her to calm down and show some respect for other people’s feelings, flinging clerical sex abuse scandals in his face. But part of her desperation to do something, anything, to get the murder solved is her own guilt. In a flashback, we see the night her daughter, on her way out for the evening, had asked to borrow her car, but Mildred won’t let her, and they get into a furious argument, the daughter finally telling her, okay, in that case she’ll walk, and she hopes she gets raped on the way. “I hope you get raped, too,” Mildred had shot back. It’s the last thing she says to her.


Martin McDonagh, the London-born Irish playwright and film director (In Bruges is his other well-known movie), keeps a balance between black comedy and drama that features not vindication but reconciliation or even redemption. Good supporting performances include the always riveting, scary John Hawkes as Mildred’s ex-husband and a quietly effective Clarke Peters as the new black sheriff in town, who comes to straighten out a police department tainted by racism. But it’s McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell who carry the movie past some implausible scenes and dubious plot turns into memorable territory.




The Darkest Hour


Winston Churchill was half-American—his mother was Jenny Jerome, a great beauty born in Brooklyn. This was one of the things held against him as he took over, on May 10, 1940, as prime minister, replacing Neville Chamberlain. R.A. Butler, a Tory politician in the Foreign Office, called him “a half-breed American whose main support was inefficient but talkative people of a similar type.” It was whispered that he was vulgar, he was a drunkard, he was unreliable.


It is hard to realize now how much Churchill, the enduring emblem of indomitable British fortitude and tradition, was distrusted and disdained at the time by most of the British establishment. He came to power as the German army was sweeping through northern France and driving toward the Channel. The French government soon fled Paris and was about to summon the 84-year-old Marshal Pétain to negotiate what amounted to surrender. The British stood alone, and most of their army was trapped in France at Calais and Dunkirk. America would not enter the war for another year and a half. There was no certainty that the seemingly imminent German invasion could be repelled. The royal family was thinking about fleeing to Canada. Many people, including Churchill’s Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, favored negotiations with Hitler. Churchill adamantly refused.


And the rest, as they say, is history—and movies. There has been a large crowd of Churchills in recent films and TV series, but none so thoroughly Churchillian as Gary Oldman, whose performance is stunning—you simply do not recognize the actor behind the look, the manner, the voice (the look, of course, owes a lot to whoever did the makeup and prosthetics and padding).


So here is Churchill in the darkest days of the war, drinking whiskey along with breakfast in bed, writing his speeches in the bathtub, staying up half the night with more work and more drink, being teased and counseled by his wife, Clementine (a superb Kristin Scott Thomas), and barking at his new, young, pretty typist, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), who soon wins his confidence, in part because she instructs him on how to make his famous V for victory gesture the right way so that it didn’t look like a profane Cockney insult. And we see him meeting with and winning over an uncertain King George VI (who had favored Chamberlain) and rallying the country with the famous speeches in the House of Commons, silencing his critics, including, finally, Halifax (Stephen Dillane), who had been urging acceptance of Mussolini’s offer to facilitate negotiations with Hitler.


John Lukacs, the Hungarian-American historian, is listed in the credits as an advisor on the film. He wrote The Duel, an incisive account of the standoff between Churchill and Hitler. If you’ve read that book or other histories, you will catch some inventions in the movie—notably Churchill riding the Underground to canvas the opinions of ordinary Londoners, and being buoyed, and moved to tears, by their readiness to keep fighting. But it’s a forgivable overdramatization. He actually did talk to a group of Londoners who had gathered outside 10 Downing Street, with the same effect.   


The drama in the movie is not so much in Churchill’s defiance of the unseen Germans—the only foreigners in the film are the French, who are, like so many of his British colleagues, initially unimpressed with him. It’s in his defiance of all those who believed he was not up to the job. Churchill, confident and resilient, unflagging in his work, his humor, and his liquor consumption, makes an unlikely underdog. But he was, as much as England itself at the time, and Joe Wright’s movie effectively conveys the beginnings of their unlikely triumph.



Lady Bird


The young Irish-American actress Saorise Ronan is always worth watching, bringing a certain understated edge of difference and distinction to every role she plays, and I have enjoyed seeing her in such contrasting movies as Atonement (which she did when she was about 13), The Way Back, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Brooklyn. The pleasure of seeing her in Lady Bird was a bit more tentative, not because of any flaws in her performance but because the subject, adolescence and its discontents, has been done and overdone so often. Ever since Rebel Without a Cause it’s been Rebel Without a Pause.


But she and the rest of the cast, spurred on by Greta Gerwig’s perceptive script and direction, carry the film, if not into new territory, into nuances of identity and relationships that you usually don’t find in these movies. Just about every character in it has enough ambiguity to dodge the usual stereotypes and clichés, not just Ronan’s restless, thwarted, baffled, yearning Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, of Sacramento, California, circa 2002.      


Like about half the students in any high school, Lady Bird feels she is somehow different from everyone else, but she doesn’t know what the difference might be, exactly, or how to express it, except for insisting on being called Lady Bird rather than Christine. And like other estranged teenagers afflicted with the “this isn’t the real me” syndrome, she feels her hometown, Sacramento, is a dead end in the middle of nowhere, and she plots, or at least dreams, her escape. At one point she says she wants to go east, to New York or Boston, where there is culture, or New Hampshire, where writers live alone in the woods. Her best bet, but it’s a long shot, is to get herself accepted by a good college there, instead of the affordable local state colleges her struggling family has in mind.


Meanwhile she suffers through the usual stigmata and ordeals of high school life, in her case a Catholic school—acne, a permanent bad hair day, hard to please teachers and counselors, close but stressed friendships, and the standard comedy of errors and Eros known as dating, including one sort of disappointment with a rich kid (Lucas Hedges, fresh from his breakthrough in last year’s Manchester by the Sea) and another sort when she loses her virginity to an ideally cute musician (Timothée Chalamet) who turns out to be a precocious cad.  


But it isn’t a dark or depressing movie. The comic accents are subtle but substantial, and sometimes not so subtle—Lady Bird is caught, with her best friend, snacking on unconsecrated communion wafers, and a school play begins to resemble another kind of play (football), when a drama teacher has to be suddenly replaced by a gung-ho guy from the athletic department.


But while Lady Bird keeps a wobbly but real poise through all this, she tends to lose it with her family. At the beginning of the film, we see her in a car with her mother, Marion, where, after they are both brought to tears by the ending of an audio version of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the conversation lurches into an exchange of bitter recriminations that abruptly ends when Lady Bird jumps out of the moving car.


They’re too close to each other not to be a thorn in each other’s side. Marion (Laurie Metcalf, excellent as always) is a frowning, seething, carping mother, dissatisfied with everything her daughter tries because she’s pretty much stopped trying herself—she’s had an abusive childhood and a stalemated marriage, and she’s forced to work a double shift at a psychiatric clinic to support the family, since Lady Bird’s more placid and indulgent father (actor/playwright Tracy Letts), has lost his job.


“I want you to be the best version of yourself,” an exasperated Marion says at one point to Lady Bird, who replies, “What if this is the best version?”  As it turns out, it is—she just has to get out of town (finally finding her way to New York) to see it in the mirror. And in the process, she finds out she liked the town and loves her mother more than she knew. Gerwig, an indie icon as an actress, is obviously dealing with autobiographical material—she grew up in Sacramento herself. She’s lucky to have Saorise Ronan to articulate all those inarticulate youthful mixed feelings she left behind.



Wonderstruck


If you’ve seen Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven (2002) and Carol (2015), both set in the 1950s, or his TV series Mildred Pierce (2011), set in the Thirties, you know how good he is at evoking a period through lush images and precise visual detail. In his new movie, Wonderstruck, you get two periods for the price of one—the Twenties and the Seventies. Both are set in New York, but the two Manhattans, located half a century apart—one prosperous, well-dressed, and officious, the other sleazy, anarchic, and dangerous—are in such stark contrast that they might as well be on different planets.


In 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmons), a lonely, dreamy, blond, deaf girl growing up in genteel isolation in Hoboken, New Jersey, is obsessed with an emergent new American species, movie stars—especially one named Lillian Mayhew. She keeps scrapbooks full of movie-magazine clippings, she stares wistfully across the Hudson at Manhattan, and, when her censorious father punishes her for cutting a piece out of his newspaper, she runs away to the city.


This part of the movie is done, like a silent film, without any sound, except Carter Burwell’s musical score, and it’s shot in black-and-white. Since this is the only way we can experience the 1920s now, through silent films and newsreel footage, the effect is to make the period seem more real than it would have with spoken dialogue and color, and it also of course reminds us that a soundless city is what a deaf girl would have been experiencing too.


Rose wanders into a cinema to see one of Mayhew’s movies, a melodrama called “Daughter of the Storm,”, and then into a theater where the actress (Julianne Moore) is rehearsing a costume drama, and there we find out why the girl has been so obsessed with her. 


Crosscut with the 1920s story is the story of Ben (Oakes Fegley), a shaggy-haired Seventies kid in a remote Minnesota town called Gunflint. His mother (Michelle Williams) is the town librarian, but despite his persistent questions, she won’t tell him anything about his unknown father. Two disasters propel Ben in the direction of New York in search of answers. His mother is killed in a car accident, and a few months later a sudden lightning strike leaves him deaf. He makes off with some cash she had left hidden in the house and gets on a bus for New York, arriving in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the perfect graffiti-covered, derelict-occupied symbol of the city’s decade-long descent into bankruptcy and squalor. He’s barely out in the crowded Times Square street, dodging the pimps and whores, before a guy grabs his wallet and runs off with all his money. His one clue about his father involves an Upper West Side used-bookstore, but when he manages to find it, it’s abandoned, blending in with the collapsing cityscape.


Luckily a neighborhood kid his age notices him looking lost and takes him over to the Museum of Natural History, where his father is a security guard and where they explore dusty treasure-filled back rooms. Meanwhile, back in the 1920s, Rose has been heading in the same direction. She ends up at the museum, where her older brother, on the staff there, rescues her from police who have figured out she’s a runaway. 


In the intertwined story lines, a couple of themes have been established. Ben found his bookstore clue in an old book in his house about “cabinets of wonders,” also known as cabinets of curiosities—a pre-modern aristocratic fad for haphazard collections of antiquities, oddities, and natural specimens that, toward the end of the 18th century, turned into the earliest museums. And there is a quote on a wall of Ben’s home: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” (It isn’t identified in the movie, but it’s from Oscar Wilde.)


The movie itself, with its parallel lines converging, with its museum meteor exhibits and wolf dioramas and finally a scale-model replica of New York City, aspires to be its own cabinet of wonders. And it keeps its eye on the stars, in one or the other sense of the word.


You can take the contrived ending as a fairy-tale one, appropriate to the child’s perspective embraced throughout the movie. For me, the sentimental concluding gift was all too carefully wrapped, replacing in effect the enchantments of the two stories set in polar-opposite periods with a somewhat pedantic guided museum tour. The fascination of the movie lies in its beautifully rendered, evocative, lost-in-the-city quests, not in their spelled-out completions. But then the real point of quests is not what you find, or don’t find, at their end, but what you discover along the way.



Wind River


Wind River is a good suspense movie pervaded by an elegiac mood and an unforgiving landscape, the wintry, mountainous landscape of the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. The suspense starts right away, with a dark-haired teenage girl (Kelsey Asbille) seen running barefoot through the snow at night, clearly running for her life, but who or what she’s running from isn’t shown.


Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a solidly built, laconic man whose family has been in Wyoming for generations, works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is first seen carefully aiming his rifle and picking off a wolf as a pack approaches a flock of sheep he’s protecting. All the equations are pretty stark out here, and soon he has a more dangerous kind of predator to go after. As he’s out on his rounds in a snowmobile, he finds the body of the girl, frozen, in the snow.


She’s Natalie, the daughter of his Native American friend Martin (Gil Birmingham), and he visits him to break the news. Stoic at first, Martin finally breaks down. Cory can understand. He was married to a Native American woman, and they lost their own daughter under somewhat similar circumstances a few years ago—she was found dead in the snow after a party that took place while he and his wife were away. It broke the marriage. We see him visiting his ex-wife, Wilma (Julia Jones), polite but distant, to pick up their young son and take him out for some lessons in handling horses. Martin, however, lacks even that consolation. His only other child, a son, seemed to have some promise but has moved in with some local troublemakers who are in and out of jail.


The investigation of what happened to the girl is left to Ben (Graham Greene), who, with six officers under him, constitutes the Reservation police force. They patrol, as he points out to Cory, an area the size of Rhode Island and could use some help. Cory agrees to assist him, but more official help arrives in the middle of a fierce snowstorm, looking very amateurish and unprepared in the eyes of Cory and Ben—an FBI agent named Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). She’s young, new on the job, and is dressed so lightly that they have to tell her she will freeze to death if she goes out into the mountains like that.


Murders on tribal lands fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government, so she’s been sent up from the Las Vegas FBI headquarters, but it turns out it isn’t technically murder. The coroner says the girl was raped, but she died from running hard through the subzero temperatures. The intake of the icy air makes blood in the lungs congeal and she actually choked to death.


Jane decides to pursue the case anyway, joining forces with Cory and Ben. The trail eventually takes them to the body of another victim in the snow, and to an oil operation on leased reservation land. But the movie isn’t just about looking for the rapist-murderer. It’s about a place of great beauty and equally great hopelessness—a lost way of life, and a current life full of poverty and drug addiction and confused, alienated kids. At one point, Martin, the father of the dead girl, paints his face in traditional mourning, but he admits he made it up himself. He doesn’t know exactly what the traditional face painting ritual was. There is no one left there to tell him.


Taylor Sheridan, who wrote Sicario and last year’s Hell or High Water, both wrote and directed this one, and he’s given it some intense confrontational scenes and a memorably terse dialogue that reflects a moral landscape as harsh as the physical one: “This isn’t back-up country. This is you’re on your own country.” And: “Here you survive or you surrender.” He conveys a somber West that’s still a frontier, still on the edge of wilderness and lawlessness, but one that’s no longer moving, no longer offering something promising over the horizon.




Dunkirk


All is cacophonous confusion in Christopher Nolan’s visually stunning Dunkirk, but that is the point. Battles—in this case, the desperate effort in May 1940 to hold off the Nazi divisions sweeping through France just long enough to allow a British retreat across the English Channel—are supposed to be confusing. Readers of French literature will recall Stendhal’s depiction of Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma, where his young hero, amid the smoke and chaos, never manages to find any definite battle. It influenced Tolstoy’s account of war in War and Peace, but most war movies have had linear plots and characters you can get to know and follow through their ordeals. Not this one.


Even if you are familiar with some of the actors, like Tom Hardy (who plays a resilient RAF pilot) and Harry Styles (one of the young soldiers on the beach), you may have a hard time recognizing or keeping track of them. This is a film about anonymous heroism, or at least anonymous endurance.


There are several story lines—land, sea, air—that are cross-cut in disorienting sequences. The dialogue is minimal, and often, under the conditions—explosions, sinking ships—unintelligible. If it weren’t for all the noise, which includes a thudding, percussive score by Hans Zimmer, you could almost think of this as a silent film, one that relies for its effects on images alone.


It begins with a young British soldier named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) running for his life through the emptied town of Dunkirk, as his companions are mowed down by German machine guns, first slipping behind the sandbagged French lines in the town, then finding his way to the beach, where long queues of soldiers, periodically strafed by Luftwaffe planes, await rescue by the flotilla of boats, military and private, that eventually succeeded in evacuating 400,000 British and French soldiers to England.


It’s a small civilian boat, called the Moonstone, that provides the closest thing to a followable subplot amid the epic confusion. Its middle-aged owner, dressed in white shirt and tie, stoically played by Mark Rylance, steers it across the channel with his teenaged son and another boy who wants to take part. Along the way they encounter a traumatized British soldier stranded on a piece of flotsam in the cold open sea and pull him on board. (In the credits, he’s just “Shivering Soldier,” played by Cillian Murphy.) At first, he can’t speak and refuses even the tea and food he is offered. Eventually he finds out that they’re headed to Dunkirk, which is just what he doesn’t want to go anywhere near again. At one point, he tries to commandeer the boat back toward England.


It’s more of a sketch than a story, even with a tragic twist. But through it all Nolan’s laconic dialogue (he wrote as well as directed the film) serves its purpose. British understatement, the modest, stiff-upper-lip determination to just get the job done, carries the moral significance of the movie, even in its contrast with the inspiring, majestic cadences of Churchill’s radio broadcasts of the time, which aren’t heard—until, at the end, one is quoted in a newspaper read aloud by a returning soldier.


Almost no historical context is provided. The role of the French army, as some French critics have complained, is virtually invisible. An officer (Kenneth Branagh) is briefly, barely overheard talking with another officer on the Dunkirk pier about the possibilities of fighting on or arriving at a truce, but most American moviegoers probably won’t know how close the British were at the time of Dunkirk to seeking some kind of deal with Hitler that might avoid a catastrophic invasion. (Some cabinet members, including the Foreign Secretary, Halifax, were tentatively in favor, Churchill was adamantly against.)


But there will be a new film about Churchill at this same dark hour later this year, starring Gary Oldman. Setting aside any attempt to convey a larger political or strategic context, Nolan, best known for innovative, popular movies like Memento, Inception, and his Batman trilogy, succeeds simply in pounding into you, scene after disjointed scene, the immediate experience of a supremely tense historical moment, the significance of which hardly needs explaining.




Their Finest


One of the things Great Britain was surely fighting for in World War II, aside from its own survival and the fate of Western Civilization, was the incomparable cultural tradition known as British humor. No country has been richer in humor—in comic novels, in whimsical nonsense of the Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll and P.G. Wodehouse sort, or the Goon Show and Monty Python sort—while “German humor,” for instance, is not a phrase that leaps to mind. So it is fitting that Their Finest extracts engaging humor from a story with an intrusively somber background, the darkest days of the war in the winter of 1940-41, when Britain stood alone against the Nazis and the Blitz was reducing sections of London to rubble.


A young Welsh woman named Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) has moved to London to be with her lover, a struggling painter named Ellis (Jack Huston) who lives in a canvas-cluttered garret. Needing to pay their rent, she takes a job with a unit of the British Ministry of Information that is turning out inspiring war movies to keep British morale up. The job initially is to write “the slop,” as her cynical screenwriting colleague Tom (Sam Claflin) calls the sentimental dialogue aimed at women in the audiences. The unit’s boss, delectably played by Richard E. Grant, offers her two pounds a week, much less than her mainly male colleagues are getting.


The movie unit wants to make a film about civilian participation in the evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk. Catrin goes out to the coast and finds twin sisters who had gone out on their uncle’s boat as part of the motley flotilla. The problem is that they never got to Dunkirk. The engine quit, and they turned back. One major part of the film’s light-touch comedy is the way a satisfying fictional version is hammered out of the uncooperative facts at breakneck speed, in story conferences and late-night sessions with the typewriters. It’s as amusing and revealing an account of moviemaking inspiration and desperation as any Hollywood behind-the-scenes movie. And in the process Catrin becomes the writer that the whole project depends on.


The rest of the movie mixes the random tragedies of the bombs with the slowly developing office romance of Catrin and Tom. The cast is perfect in creating subsidiary characters that have their own memorable individuality. The best supporting role belongs to Bill Nighy as a touchy, aging movie star who is offered a role in the Dunkirk film that he thinks beneath him. His Polish-born agent (Eddie Marsan) is killed in the bombing and is replaced by his brisk sister (Helen McCrory), who pounds some sense into the actor’s swollen head and gets him into the role, which with Catrin’s help he gradually makes his own, meanwhile losing his standoffishness and becoming her ally and friend.


Jeremy Irons has a brief but brilliant cameo as a breezy upper-class Cabinet Minister who informs the movie crew that room must be made for an American character in the film, even though there were no Americans at Dunkirk. The point is to make the film popular in the United States, which has to be coaxed into entering the war. Naturally the only suitably blond and handsome military American immediately available (Jake Lacy) is, as an actor, stiff as a board. His dialogue is slowly extracted from the movie while he is still in it. Racheal Stirling plays the one other prominent woman in the unit, her masculine shirt and tie the only overt expression of her hinted-at lesbianism. 

The director, Lone Scherfig, is Danish, but she seems to have come down with an agreeably incurable case of understated British wit. She’s best known for her first English film, An Education (2009). This movie, based on a novel by Lissa Evans called (more wittily than the movie) Their Finest Hour and a Half, is about women making their way in a man’s world, or you could say man’s microcosm, because the subtext is that everywhere, not just in this one minor, beleaguered precinct of the war effort, a lot of class and gender barriers were breaking down, luckily leaving British resourcefulness and British humor intact. 




Elle


It’s not easy to dislike a movie with Isabelle Huppert in it. She’s a great actress, one of a breed—Garbo, Dietrich, Davis—whose usual persona has a note of detachment, disdain, or icy aloofness in it. And it must be easy for critics to like Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, released last year to near universal acclaim, and featuring Huppert in almost every shot. The Dutch-born Verhoeven is best known in America for the movies he made in the Hollywood phase of his career, like Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Robocop, and Total Recall. But they aren’t as good as some of his Dutch-language films, like Turkish Delight (1973) and two about the Dutch Resistance during World War II, Soldier of Orange (1977) and Black Book (2006).


This movie was originally written in English, intended for an American cast, but Verhoeven decided that no American actress would fit (or even accept) the starring role like Huppert, so it became his first film shot in French. The notes of black comedy come through well enough, but it’s basically a suspense film, and for a suspense film to work, there has to be someone with something close to normal psychology at the center of it. Hitchcock usually got his suspense out of ordinary people put in sudden peril. Even Janet Leigh, in Psycho, was just an average office girl gone wrong. Almost everyone in this movie is, openly or secretly, weird.


Huppert plays Michèle Leblanc, the divorced, middle-aged boss of a company that makes violent video games. In the first scene of the movie she is raped and beaten up in her comfortable home by a masked intruder, as her cat, like the movie audience, impassively watches. After the rapist leaves, she calmly cleans up the broken glass and other debris, takes a bath, and orders some takeout Asian food. Later she joins friends at a restaurant and nonchalantly tells them of the rape. She doesn’t call the police.


A backstory gradually emerges. She’s wary of not only the police but her own feelings, because when she was ten, her father was arrested for a horrific crime, and even four decades later, she still (implausibly) gets strangers recognizing her and harassing her about it.


She eventually buys some pepper spray and a small hatchet-like weapon, and she takes shooting lessons from a colleague at work, as if to prepare herself for the return of the rapist, who leaves menacing notes for her at home and her office and seems to know where she is and what she’s doing at every moment. Otherwise, she goes on with her coolly calculated life, which includes an affair with the husband of her best friend, muddled encounters with her muddled ex-husband, visits with her elderly mother, who is addicted to botox and sex with a muscular young gigolo, and arguments with her ineffectual son, who needs her financial support and is about to marry his pregnant girlfriend, a bitch who constantly nags and berates him.


Verhoeven will never be mistaken for a sentimentalist. He likes to disturb and shock. He offers hard characters and twisty plots that pull the rug out from under you. But sometimes plots twist to the point of perversity, and repeated shocks turn into Grand Guignol sensationalism. By the time the mysterious rapist is unmasked, I had lost all interest in the mystery, in the icy and invulnerable Michèle, and in the grotesque ménage surrounding her. I have enjoyed watching Huppert in most of her movies since her 1977 debut, The Lacemaker, including her memorable collaborations with Claude Chabrol, such as Story of Women, La Cérémonie, and Merci pour le Chocolat, where she plays unsympathetic characters, and (unlike some friends of mine) I even got through her performance in Michael Haneke’s study in masochism, The Piano Teacher, without flinching or retching. But even she couldn’t induce me to take much pleasure or interest in this one.



Lion


The first 45 minutes of Lion are riveting. If you ever got lost as a small child—and who didn’t?—you know how utterly terrifying it can be, even if it’s only half an hour in your own neighborhood. Imagine then being a 5-year-old kid from a dirt-poor Indian family who wanders into an empty train that takes him a thousand miles from his home to a vast city where a different dialect is spoken and no one understands him. It means living for months in the teeming streets, foraging for food, and dodging dangers around every corner, including kidnappers who sell homeless children into the sex trade.


Not many 5-year-olds would have the cool-headed resourcefulness and heroic resilience to survive all this. If the rest of the movie loses some of that suspense and fairy-tale enchantment, it does finally take up another archetypal theme, the quest for origins. The result is a tearily joyful film that’s full of the beguiling improbability that only reality can have (it’s all based on a true story).


When we first see Saroo (Sunny Pewar), he’s with his older brother Guddu on top of a moving train, stealing coal to be later exchanged for milk, thus helping out their single mother. One night, Guddu takes Saroo along to search empty trains for dropped coins or luggage left behind. Saroo gets sleepy, and Guddu leaves him on a bench, telling him to stay there until he gets back. But Saroo wakes up early in the morning and searches for his brother, eventually getting on one of the empty trains and falling asleep again. Suddenly the train is pulling out and moving fast. It takes him all the way across India to Calcutta, where everyone speaks Bengali, not Saroo’s Hindi. He sleeps in the station there, eats the fruit left at religious shrines, and barely escapes while other homeless kids are being snatched by sinister strangers.


There’s a particularly chilling scene in which a seemingly friendly young woman takes him in, but then has a male friend in to look him over appraisingly. The man says, “This is just what they’re looking for.” Saroo can’t understand the words but knows the guy is trouble, and he runs off. He does a lot of running. Eventually a more benevolent stranger turns him over to the cops, who can’t figure out where he’s from (Saroo doesn’t even know the right name of his village, not that anyone in Calcutta would know where it is). They deposit him in a miserable state-run orphanage.  A kind woman who works there has been contacted by an Australian couple, John (David Wenham) and Sue (Nicole Kidman) Brierley, who want to adopt an Indian child. Saroo’s eventual arrival into their comfortable and loving home in Tasmania is the reassuring climax of the first part of the film.


The rest takes place about 20 years later, around 2006. While another Indian boy adopted at about the same time has been a more troubled addition to the family, Saroo (Dev Patel) seems well-adjusted, happy, and headed for conventional success, studying hotel management and acquiring an American girlfriend (Rooney Mara).


At a party, however, he encounters a plate of the Indian sweets he had long ago loved, and it has the same effect as Proust’s madeleine—it brings his lost childhood flooding back. He becomes obsessed with finding his original home and family in India. He quits a job and distances himself from his girlfriend and his adoptive parents to devote himself to searching for his home village on the then new Google Earth, marking up a large map of India on the wall of his apartment. He’s reluctant to tell his worried mother what’s wrong, and this leads to a crucial scene in which he, and we, find out why the Brierleys had adopted two Indian children in the first place.


The problem is that the movie’s abrupt transition makes it hard to rediscover the immediate sympathy you have for Saroo the plucky 5-year-old in Saroo the confident but conflicted 25-year-old, despite another excellent performance by Dev Patel (best known for his starring role in Slumdog Millionaire). His relationship to his girlfriend and adoptive family seems sketchy. And essential as Google may have been for finding his way, cloistered in his apartment, back to his Indian origins, you can’t help wishing, if only for the sake of getting more of the film’s beautiful landscape photography, that he had done it the old-fashioned way, with tenacious, adventurous detective work, province to province, village to village, on the ground in India. Still, a (mostly) happy ending is convincingly delivered in a climactic reunion, and the movie ends as it begins—an intensely affecting, compelling experience.



Manchester by the Sea


All three of the acutely observant and deeply engaging movies written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, You Can Count On Me (1999), Margaret (2011), and his new film, Manchester by the Sea, have tragic loss in their background and moral confusion in their foreground. Characters do impulsive, irrational things. They intersect at odd, incommunicative angles. Their urgent or mundane or half-finished sentences get nowhere, and so, often enough, do they. 


Yet despite the impasses and dark undercurrents, these films don’t offer depressing tours of unrelieved damage and defeat, or (what would be even more depressing) patented inspiring, heartwarming resolutions. They’re resolutely unresolved.


The result is the opposite of melodrama. There are no cinematic italics or exclamation points, no conspicuous arcs or crescendos. Lonergan’s characters don’t fall into categories like good and evil, hero and villain. Some are more decent or reliable or responsible than others, but all are complex and all are in the throes of muddling through.

His movies are about the irreducible complexity of the human condition, a complexity that includes plenty of oblique comedy as well as muted tragedy, since both are woven into the tangle of ordinary life that he makes his touchstone. Lonergan could use, as epigraph for any of his films, Kant’s aphorism: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity nothing straight can be made.”


At the beginning of Manchester by the Sea, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, in an appropriately subdued performance) is seen working as a janitor in a Boston apartment house, shoveling snow and fixing people’s toilets, fielding impatient complaints and accepting an occasional tip, living in a dismal little basement room. We sense that this life is a kind of resigned self-punishment before we find out, almost halfway through the film, the reason for it.

We see through flashbacks glimpses of his earlier life in Manchester, a small seaside town north of Boston, spending time and joking around with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and their young daughters, or out fishing with his solid, steady older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and his son Patrick on Joe’s boat. But Joe has a chronic heart condition, and Lee, in Boston, gets an emergency call and hurriedly drives to the hospital near Manchester, arriving just too late to say good-bye to him. Joe’s wife Elise (Gretchen Mol), with drinking and anger problems, has virtually disappeared. Lee is stunned to learn that Joe, in his will, has made him the guardian of Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who is now 16.


Patrick has what he considers a good life in Manchester—high school hockey team, a couple of girlfriends, a rock band. The last thing he wants to do is to move to Boston and into his uncle’s dead-end life. Lee in turn is baffled by Patrick, with whom he had a close, good-humored relationship earlier. He’s reluctant to judge him, but he’s uncomfortable with Patrick’s juggling of girlfriends and the surface breeziness and sarcasm that conceal his feelings about losing his father and, in effect, his mother, too (despite a final, futile attempt to reconnect with her).  

The film is really about two things, the pervasive effects of the tragedy that cost Lee his previous life, turning him into a sullen and sometimes violent loner (he gets into unprovoked bar fights), and the slow understanding that develops between him and Patrick. But it’s all subtle and understated. In fact, several of the most crucial scenes are silent. You see people talking at a distance, but you don’t hear them. The flashback that finally conveys what happened to Lee, and to his family, after a night of drunken carelessness, is mostly without dialogue, played out with Albinoni’s elegiac Adagio on the soundtrack.


The movie is therefore as subdued in tone as Affleck’s outstanding performance, but this is the source of its beauty, its low-key comedy, and its cumulative emotional power. You Can Count On Me, set in a small upstate New York town, with career-launching performances by Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney, did well enough as an indie release, but Margaret, a masterpiece that runs just over three hours, with Anna Paquin playing a troubled college student in Manhattan who has inadvertently caused a fatal accident, got caught up in delays and lawsuits when Lonergan refused to make cuts demanded by investors and distributors. I was lucky enough to be one of the few people to see it, slightly cut, during its deliberately obscure and brief 2011 theatrical run. (It’s now available at its original length on dvd.) But Manchester by the Sea is getting the attention and wide distribution it deserves. It’s one of the best films since, well, Lonergan’s two other films.




Allied


Allied, set in French Morocco and in London during World War II, begins as an homage to the most famous Warner Brothers movie ever made, Casablanca, and is, in general, a tribute to the stylish surfaces and intricate plots of Hollywood movies of the period. 


It even shares some of the historical fiction of Casablanca, such as uniformed German officers exercising direct authority in Vichy-controlled Morocco. It lacks, on the other hand, Casablanca’s imaginary “letters of transit.” Unfortunately, it also lacks the pithy, cynical dialogue of the most quoted movie in American cinema, not to mention its archetypal, ambiguous characters.


Brad Pitt plays Max Vatan, a Canadian working for British intelligence, and the brilliant French actress Marion Cotillard is Marianne Beausejour, a French Resistance agent working undercover in Casablanca, posing as a Vichy sympathizer. They have been ordered to assassinate a German officer, and to do this they have to pretend to be man and wife. This means Pitt, mumbling some French dialogue, convinces everyone, including Marianne’s Vichyite friends, that he’s a native French speaker, a stretch as wide as the Sahara—which is where, alone in a car during a sandstorm, Max and Marianne, no longer faking affection for each other, first make love.


Shortly afterward, they pull off the planned assassination in spectacular fashion and implausibly make a clean escape to London, where they get married, this time for real, and where Marianne, during a Blitz bombing raid, gives birth to a baby girl. They settle into happy domesticity in North London, but then Max is informed by a top-secret unit in British intelligence that Marianne might be a double agent. The real Marianne Beausejour may have been killed early in the war. And they have intercepted messages that someone is sending to the Germans from North London.


Max doesn’t believe it, but he is ordered to leave some fake intelligence where his wife can find it, and if that turns up in the intercepted messages, they will know that Marianne is working for the Nazis. In that case, Max will have to kill her, and if he refuses, or warns her, he himself will be killed. This is unlikely, of course, since British authorities, if they found they had a Nazi spy on their hands, would want to arrest and interrogate her, not abruptly execute her. But at least Max’s superiors are played by Jared Harris and Simon McBurney, two wonderful British character actors, and the scene is effective. Over the next few days, Max, against orders, goes to great lengths to find out who Marianne really is before they do.


The plot of Casablanca was hard to follow, let alone swallow. Yet it worked, and this one, despite some intriguing scenes and turns, doesn’t, because it finally leads the movie into off-key and overwrought territory, with none of the sly irony and humor of the 1942 film. The director, Robert Zemeckis, has done outstanding work, including Forrest Gump, Cast Away, and Back to the Future, and the screenwriter, Steven Knight, wrote Eastern Promises, a dark and devious film about Russian gangsters in London that I thoroughly enjoyed. But I wanted to like this movie far more than I did like it.


Still, it might at least have the virtue of sending you out looking for other, better World War II Resistance movies. The first and greatest, made before the war was over, is Roberto Rossellini’s Rome: Open City (co-written by Federico Fellini). And Army of Shadows (1969), directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, who served with De Gaulle’s Free French forces, is, in its hard, confrontational moral ambiguities, as compelling as it is disturbing. Paul Verhoeven’s Soldier of Orange (1974) and Black Book (2007) are superb, twisty films about the Dutch Resistance. The Polish Ashes and Diamonds (1958), the Danish Flame and Citron (2008), and the German Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) are also all well worth tracking down. And then there’s Casablanca.  




Sully


Clint Eastwood’s Sully tells the story of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who became a national hero in January 2009 when, a few minutes after taking off from La Guardia Airport, his plane ran into a flock of birds, both engines failed, and, with great sangfroid and skill, he managed to bring it precariously down on the icy waters of the Hudson River just off the West Side of Manhattan, saving the lives of all 155 passengers and the crew.

The movie takes its time getting there, but it finally does a good job of re-creating those tense moments. Its problem is that the tense moments take ten minutes. So to fill the rest of its running time, it relies on flashbacks and aftermaths and tries hard to extract drama out of the grilling that Sully (Tom Hanks) and his co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart) are subjected to afterward by officials of the National Transportation Safety Board. The premise behind their relentless questions is that he should have followed proper procedures and tried to return to La Guardia, or divert to Newark, instead of risking a river landing. The imperturbable Sully has little trouble demonstrating that it couldn’t have been done. We now know that the actual NTSB officials weren’t nearly as inquisitorial as they’re portrayed here, and that the inquiry took place months, not days, after the incident. But movies need villains, and the federal functionaries function as one.


It does allow the film to raise some interesting questions about what happens to an authentic (and modest) hero in our legalistic-bureaucratic society. While being celebrated by ordinary people—New York pedestrians who greet him on the street, bartenders who name drinks after him—Sully is put through a wringer of regulations and protocols. Hanks, who, equipped with short white hair and clipped moustache, looks a lot like the real Sully, is in effect reprising his role in last year’s Bridge of Spies—the unassuming, resilient American good guy surrounded by carping obstructionists.


Eastwood’s career both as actor and director has repeatedly and provocatively expressed his devotion to individual autonomy and bold, rule-bending, risk-taking improvisation—heroism, in short—in a nitpicking culture that not only demands that everything be done by the book, but the book is 4,623 pages long. Sully and everyone on board would have perished that day if he had parsed every subclause in the pilot’s manual instead of going by gut instinct—an instinct born of decades of hard-won experience. In this light, the movie, despite its jumbled time sequences and stage-managed confrontations, is a fitting tribute not just to one man but to an inspiring version of common sense.





The Girl on the Train



There are thrillers that go deep, plumbing complex moral and psychological depths, like The Third Man, The Night of the Hunter, or some of Hitchcock’s best films—Notorious, Vertigo, Psycho. And then there are the thrillers that just efficiently draw you in and keep you riveted, like Sudden Fear (1952), Cape Fear (1962 and 1991), Fatal Attraction, Panic Room, A History of Violence, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Prisoners, etc.


Tate Taylor’s The Girl on the Train seems for a moment headed for the first category, plunging you into the somber psyche of a wounded woman, then aims for the second, and finally lands in a third category, the thriller that’s just a neat package of smoke and mirrors. It’s intriguing at first, extracting several varieties of feminine discontent from its immaculate suburban landscape and keeping you engaged with its jigsaw puzzle of a plot. It’s at least better than the never for a moment believable Gone Girl. But like that movie, this one, based on a best-selling novel by Paula Hawkins, succumbs to its contrivances and thinly conceived characters.


The dark-haired, dark-minded girl, or rather youngish woman, on the train, Rachel (Emily Blunt), has hit rock bottom as the movie begins. And then things really start to go bad. She’s a divorced, lonely alcoholic who is (as she says in an initial voiceover) “not the girl I used to be.” She still lives in the upscale Westchester County suburb of New York where she had been married, but instead of having a comfortable house she now rents a room. And she still rides the commuter train along the Hudson River into the city every day, but she has long since lost her job there, and now she just sits in bars before returning home on the train thoroughly drunk.


On the way back and forth, she gets glimpses of other people’s lives—women in houses visible from the train who seem to have everything she had, or almost had. One of those women, a pretty blonde named Megan (Haley Bennett), turns out to be both neighbor and nanny to another blonde, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), who is the new wife, with new baby, of Rachel’s ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux). Megan becomes the focus of Rachel’s envious train spying. 


Rachel’s drinking habit sometimes results in blackouts. One morning she wakes up with blood-soaked clothes. And Megan has gone missing. Could Rachel’s voyeuristic obsession with her (despite not really knowing her) have resulted in murder? Rachel’s fragmented memories of the night include a possible encounter with Megan in a park, and the suspicious police detective (Allison Janney) knows she was drunk and she was there. But Rachel has her own suspicions, and she tracks down both Megan’s husband and her therapist, trying to fit the pieces together. When all the pieces do fall into place, the result is both logical and lame. Still, Blunt’s performance in the central role is subtle enough in to make Rachel’s desperation (if not all her notions and actions) plausible. At the end, when she repeats that opening voiceover line about not being the girl she used to be, she has earned its transformed meaning. The trouble is that thrillers, on the evidence here, are not the movies they used to be.




The Light Between Oceans


Isolation is a good way to generate drama, which is why so many film directors (and dramatists—see The Tempest) have been interested in islands, or boats cast adrift, cabins deep in the woods, lonely motels far off the main highway, and so forth. Strand someone or a couple or an odd mix of people somewhere, step back, and see what happens. It’s a formula Hitchcock used in Lifeboat and Psycho. You can find it in the early Joan Crawford film Rain, in Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away, in Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf, in Lord of the Flies, and all the other island films you care to list. 


Derek Cianfrance’s moving drama of choice and stark consequences, The Light Between Oceans, set in Australia just after the First World War, belongs among the memorable island movies. Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) is a veteran left numb and nearly silent by the horrors of trench warfare in France. Wanting to be alone, he takes a temporary three-month job as lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a small, rugged, windswept island off the western coast of Australia (the desolate beauty of the landscape in the film, which was actually shot in New Zealand, intensifies everything).


Before Tom leaves for the island, at a dinner in the house of his supervisor on the mainland, Isabel (Alicia Vikander), the supervisor’s beautiful daughter, makes no effort at all to conceal her immediate attraction to him. Once he is alone on the island, they exchange tender love letters. When Tom is offered a permanent job at the lighthouse, she wants to go with him, and they get married.


In their island solitude, all is idyllic at first, but after Isabel gets pregnant, she suffers, in a harrowing scene during a fierce storm, a miscarriage, and eventually has another. Just then a boat drifts ashore, with a dead young man and a newborn baby, still alive, in it. Tom is ready to report it, but Isabel is desperate to claim the baby girl as her own, and since no one else knows about the stray boat or her second miscarriage, he finally, if reluctantly, agrees. He buries the man’s body on the island, Isabel devotedly and happily raises the girl, called Lucy, and he comes alive as a gentle, good-humored father.


But just as Lucy, now 4, is being christened at a church in the mainland town, Tom notices a woman (Rachel Weisz) weeping by a stone in the churchyard. He sees that it’s a memorial to her husband and newborn baby, presumed drowned at sea four years earlier, and realizes Lucy must be her child. Conscience-stricken, he leaves an anonymous note for the woman assuring her that her daughter is still alive. Eventually the local authorities figure out what happened, but Tom, wanting to protect Isabel, says it was all his idea. He is accused of murder as well as child theft, and Lucy, terrified and crying, is torn from the arms of Isabel and handed over to her real mother (who had named her Grace).


Two loving mothers, one distraught child. The resulting plot complications, in the hands of a less intelligent director, might have turned it into melodrama. But Cianfrance, who wrote and directed Blue Valentine (2010), one of the best troubled-marriage dramas in recent years, keeps it on a level where questions of love, loyalty, and sacrifice are given subtle and convincing dramatic form. The film reminds us that even an understandable and heartfelt choice can suddenly plunge a person into a strange, dangerous moral universe. A gently sloping, inviting path can end in a precipice.


Cianfrance co-wrote the script with M.L. Stedman, the author of the novel the film is based on, and it’s perfectly realized by the outstanding performances of Fassbender, a superb actor playing a man whose feelings are tightly wrapped in a restraint imposed by bitter experience, and the Swedish-born Vikander (A Royal Affair, The Danish Girl), who fully emerges here as a mature and entrancing star. Having met on location for the film, they are now a couple off-screen as well, so there’s no question about their visible onscreen chemistry. And Weisz and the rest of the cast are excellent as well. It’s one of the best, most affecting films of the past few years.




Café Society


The signature theme in what has become Woody Allen’s signature form, the rueful or wistful comedy, is that life never lives up to our expectations and ideals, and we often trip ourselves up pursuing them, but then if we didn’t pursue them, life would be so redundant and dull that it would hardly be worth living. In other words, we need our illusions, but we also need to choose them carefully.


His latest movie, Café Society, revisits the 1930s, the decade he was born in the middle of and keeps returning to, as if in search of something lost. And in fact we have lost all the elegance and half the wit of the period, both of which clearly appeal to Allen. And by setting it amid the glittering surfaces of Thirties Hollywood and Manhattan, he makes sure there are plenty of pursuable illusions available.


The result is something less than his best work, even his best recent work like Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine, but it’s still a lightly engaging, very watchable mix of nostalgia and irony. As usual in his recent films, he gets his laughs more through schematically contrasted characters bordering on stereotypes than through the jokes and wisecracks of his earlier work—though there are still some good, epigrammatic one-liners.


Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a quiet, awkward 20-something, flees Brooklyn and his raucous parents (played with perfect Jewish-comic timing by Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott) for Hollywood, where his uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carell) is a cynical, high-powered agent who lives his life in the brief intervals between urgent phone calls from studio executives and stars.


Bobby finally gets Phil’s reluctant attention, but by then he’s giving his own attention mainly to Phil’s beautiful secretary, Veronica, or Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who came to L.A. from the Midwest with acting ambitions but has grown tired of all the ego and money and name-dropping. She seems to see in Bobby’s naïve earnestness some echo of her own original innocence, and they start spending time together. Bobby talks about taking her back to New York, getting married, finding an apartment in Greenwich Village.


But she is slowly being reeled in by one of Hollywood’s big fish. So after the plot takes its predictable sharp ironic turn, a disillusioned Bobby slinks back to New York, where he joins forces with another opposite he’s related to, his older brother Ben (Corey Stoll), a gangster who has just opened a nightclub called Les Tropiques. Bobby manages it for him as it catches on with the boldface names of Café Society, and he eventually meets and marries another pretty Veronica from the Midwest (Blake Lively). 


But he’s still thinking of Vonnie, who, now married herself and immersed in the shallowest depths of Hollywood, is still thinking of him. Circumstances conspire for their meeting in New York, complete with romantic, nostalgic walks in Central Park, but that’s about all the circumstances can manage. They live, the ending implies, wistfully ever after.


There are some off-notes in both the plot and the dialogue. The neat, symmetrical ironies can leave you wondering about the motivations of the characters. And Woody Allen has to be aware that “know where you’re coming from” is a phrase that came to plague our language long after the Thirties. But despite a few such anachronisms, Eisenberg, Stewart, and Carell turn in convincing performances, and the movie works for what it is: not a tender or touching star-crossed romance, but a comic allegory of the way ambition and success can get in the way of what we really want.

 




 


SCREENplay


Lawrence Klepp


SCREENplay is a column devoted to films and occasionally plays. It includes reviews of selected new films and reflections on older ones, whether classics or lesser known movies worth seeking out.  

Lawrence Klepp moved to Vermont last year from Manhattan, where he lived for more than 30 years, working as an editor and writing  about books, history, philosophy, and film for numerous publications including

The Village Voice, Entertainment Weekly,

the New York Times,

the New York Daily News,

Newsday,

New York Magazine,

and Esquire


to contact the columnist write to


newnusquam@hotmail.com