By BRUCE DENNILL
How To Be Single (16L)
The Shallows (PGV)
Queen Of The Desert (PG)
The Keeping Room (13V)
The Girl On The Train (16LV)
The Meddler (PG)
There’s no commercial support for an argument that audiences don’t like films in which the focus is sex or the unashamed pursuit of it. The box office receipts for the Fifty Shades Of Grey series – in which How To Be Single actress Dakota Johnson is one of the main attractions – will confirm that. But this ensemble piece is nothing more than a celebration of superficiality, and as such, is a little galling to watch for anyone with a suggestion of maturity. Alice (Johnson) retreats from a solid if uninspiring relationship because she feels like she needs a change. That change includes a move to New York, where new friends offer fresh perspective, but zero edification. Rebel Wilson, as Alice’s new colleague Robin, is reliably off-the-wall and provides a few laughs as a result. But this is just a female version of the sour, ugly frat-boy (of whatever age – the connotations extend beyond college-age kids) “comedies” that require some poor non-clique individual to be emotionally damaged as part of a punchline. And the protagonists here are making themselves the victims, prioritising behaviour that will predictably result in their getting hurt in some way. Such actions make them difficult to like and invest in, so if you have anything better to do, finishing the film will feel like a chore.
The Shallows takes another common theme – humans versus nature – and gives it a feminine sheen, with the beautiful Blake Lively being the centre of what is essentially a one-woman show. The other lead character is a shark that, coincidentally, happens to have its feeding ground in the same remote, secluded bay in which Nancy (Lively) is surfing. It’s a clichéd set-up, but it’s a reasonable one and, for the most part, the way the situation plays out is well-handled. Much of this has to do with Lively’s ability to convincingly handle the hard-hitting (and they are – Nancy ends up battered and bruised) action aspect of the story as her character gets stuck on a rocky outcrop tantalisingly close to the beach with the sleek predator somewhere in the water nearby. There are twists and turns aplenty, though director Juame Collet-Serra manages to keep everything so tight that sequence feels like taut storytelling rather than indulgent Hollywood foolishness. A compact film, but not a slight one.
On the other end of the epic scale is Queen Of The Desert, auteur Werner Herzog’s thoughtful look at the life of Gertrude Bell, a very influential but not particularly famous (in the mainstream sense) English diplomat who fearlessly negotiated the multiple dangers of the Middle East and beyond in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, working as a writer, cartographer, archaeologist and negotiator. The challenges she faced were plentiful, but perhaps the greatest obstacle she overcame was sexism – most problematically in her own culture, but also in the societies in which she immersed herself (Arab countries not being known for their open-mindedness towards women). Herzog’s approach is typically dense and layered, which is probably appropriate for the heft of the subject matter, but it has the effect of making Bell (or maybe it’s only Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of her) seem standoffish and difficult to access. This in turn makes the film overall feel like an extract from a lavish textbook rather than a personal journey with an extraordinary real-life woman who genuinely changed the world’s geo-political landscape.
It’s far easier to take the side of the women in The Keeping Room, who find themselves in a tragic, avoidable situation as the objects of desire of a couple of AWOL Union Army soldiers looking to indulge their carnal desires and work off some of the horrific trauma they’ve been through as the Civil War draws to an end. The complexity of the context is important, as everyone being a victim (there’s a further layer in that one of the three women involved is a slave, working for the other two) makes the unfolding more drama more heart-rending and appalling than it otherwise might have been. Sisters Augusta (the excellent Brit Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and their servant Mad (Muna Otaru) are doing their best to maintain their farm under crushingly difficult conditions when they have the frightening arrival of the soldiers to add to their burden. The latter have nothing to lose – they’re bitter, violent men courtesy of their experiences on the battlefield – but their having no reason to do what they do (not that there’s ever an acceptable excuse to threaten others) makes their actions all the more vile. The film lays bare a part of human nature that most, if not all, viewers would usually actively try to avoid, and there are not many allowances made for sensitive onlookers. It’s gritty – and ultimately satisfying – stuff.
The Girl On The Train is a mystery story with almost as many twists as it has scenes, and Eric Cressida Wilson’s script (based on Paula Hawkins’s novel) and director Tate Taylor’s pacing make the flow smooth and the sharp corners reliably startling, Interestingly, the film doesn’t start with this fizz, with the early stages involving a woman named Rachel (Emily Blunt) who is obviously hurting after a divorce and who sees in the lives of a couple she observes during her daily commute (Megan and Tom, played by Hayley Bennett and Justin Theroux respectively) a sort of perfection she aspires to regaining. Rachel seems needy and faintly exasperating – not the sort of character you want to build an entire film around. There’s a sort of uncertainty, both appealing and alarming, that makes the film undeniably watchable, not least because guessing the next chapter is a high-odds game, and the script will probably confound you, at least up to a point. As the layers of the story are revealed, so the quality of Blunt’s performance is underlined, with her character cast as victim, villain and all points in between. Absorbing, unsettling viewing.
In a far gentler vein, The Meddler, written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, comes across like a Shirley Valentine remake put together by Woody Allen. It features Susan Sarandon as Marnie, a busybody older woman who has considerable disposable income courtesy of her late husband, and a complete lack of appropriate boundaries in her relationships with others, particularly her damaged but vulnerable daughter Lori (Rose Byrne). Marnie is hilariously, frustratingly insensitive to the needs of those around her, but possessed of such a generous, caring heart that she somehow muddles her way into scenarios where she makes a difference – if not for the better, then at least in a direction that’s vaguely positive. The narrative doesn’t have a set beginning and end, beginning and ending with many issues still unresolved but feeling, for all that, more natural and realistic than any number of similarly themed pieces. Gently provocative and tenderly amusing.