By BRUCE DENNILL
Z For Zechariah / Directed by Craig Zobel / PG 7
The Lady In The Van / Directed by Nicholas Hytner / 13L 8
The Swan Princess: Princess Tomorrow, Pirate Today / Directed by Richard Rich / PG 6
The Dressmaker / Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse / 13SV 8
Z For Zechariah adds a clever twist to the apocalyptic drama formula, reducing the scale of the dystopia to just a single farm and its surrounds. A capable young woman named Ann (Margot Robbie) is getting along fine with just her dog for company when she encounters a scientist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who wanders into the area and requires her help. Administering that care results in a sort of intimacy these two strangers might otherwise have never developed, and they soon build a formidable partnership as they use their shared knowledge and expertise to buttress their location against the potential creep of the event that wiped out – as far as they know – the rest of the world. The arrival, later, of a second man, (Chris Pine) throws their new reality into disarray, though not in the overblown melodramatic way favoured in most similar scripts. There’s drama aplenty, but there’s also philosophical inspiration. This is a story that explores how, in a situation where there are (apparently) only three people left on a planet, the issues that wrack society at large – prejudice, envy, arrogance, greed and more – are as front and centre as ever, even though the trio need each other to survive. Because it’s fiction, it’s easy enough to write off as a single belligerent perspective, but it’s also a warning; an observation on human nature that is both respectful and distressing.
Confirmation that there are far too few opportunities to see Maggie Smith in central roles in full-length feature films, The Lady In The Van tells the peculiar story of one Miss Shepherd (Smith), a vagrant with an uncertain backstory who arrived, with her bashed-up old van, in the street in which famous playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) lived. She parked the van – her home and repository of all her earthly possessions – in a few spots around the suburb before hostile treatment from her neighbours convinced her to move on, eventually ending up in Bennett’s driveway, which was supposed to be a temporary refuge but which became her home for 15 years. It sounds like a tale only a master storyteller like Bennett could dream up, but it actually happened, and instead the bulk of the appeal is in how the story is told. Fittingly, Bennett handles that aspect, being the scriptwriter for the film, and he is backed up by sublime performances by both Smith and Jennings, who recreate what was already an unconventional relationship, adding all the requisite British awkwardness, along with the confrontational aspects evident in the personalities of both individuals. Director Nicholas Hyntner paces things brilliantly, eliminating inappropriate frivolity in what is a melancholic but enchanting story. Miss Shepherd is a cantankerous, difficult woman, but she is also damaged, and the way that Bennett, whose empathy is not as well-developed as it might be, treats her throughout their affiliation is interesting, particularly in the light of his taking inspiration from his surroundings as a writer.
This instalment in the Swan Princess franchise is, like the rest of the series, a long way behind the Pixar standard when it comes to both the sophistication of its animation and the snappy wit of its dialogue. But it is a very satisfactory second tier, populated with agreeable characters. And in this story, as suggested by the title, there is a deviation into that staple of the adventure story – piracy. It’s clear from the start that being a pirate is not a desirable outcome for a smart young princess, but while the audience knows that up front, Princess Alise, it seems, needs to learn her lesson the hard way. What follows is an odd, disconnected escapade that cobbles together a number of ideas that don’t really fit together. However, the film never tries to punt a definitive narrative, and there’s enough enthusiastic silliness to entertain consistently. This is mostly for kids, rather than being the multi-layered fare expected by fans of contemporary animated blockbusters.
Kate Winslet is incredibly versatile, so while it’s not surprising that she pitches up in this bizarre Australian project, an adaptation of novelist Rosalie Ham’s 2000 book of the same name, it is surprising that The Dressmaker is around at all. The book was a success, but the story is so deliciously, wickedly weird that green-lighting this piece must have taken some serious cajones and a well-developed sense of mischief. Winslet plays the titular protagonist, a sophisticated designer and seamstress named Tilly Dunnage who returns to the backwoods – and backwards – town of Dungatar in the Australian outback, where she grew up and where her batty mother Molly (Judy Davis) still lives. Tilly is almost universally disliked by the townspeople, with the exception being a brash younger man named Teddy (Chris Hemsworth). The reason for their aggression towards her – and her general disdain for them – is very slowly revealed throughout the narrative, warranting continued focus from viewers who might otherwise distracted by the more outlandish elements of the plot, such as Hugo Weaving’s, er, unique police officer. This thread helps to make sense of Tilly’s actions and meticulous strategy, and to give viewers a perspective on the profoundly peculiar milieu in which the story takes place. The film pulls off the impressive trick of constantly and consistently surprising the viewer, which is something precious few titles can pull off. There is humour in just about every frame – often pitch-black or kookily surreal – and there are moments of wretched tragedy, and when the film reaches its conclusion, the only thing you can be sure of is that you’ll be a mixture of amused and bemused, with the proportions probably differing from viewer to viewer.