By BRUCE DENNILL
The Judge / Directed by David Dobkin / 16L 8.5
The Forger / Directed by Philip Martin / 16L 7
Devil’s Knot / Directed by Atom Egoyan / 13LV 7
The Hundred-Foot Journey / Directed by Lasse Hallstrom / PG 8
Superficially, it seems strange that intimate dramas hit harder emotionally and intellectually than colossal, inter-continental action stories, but as a rule of thumb, such an outcome is pretty reliable. There are a couple of obvious reasons that this might be the case. Firstly, writing a few interesting characters who operate in a limited, finely detailed context must be easier and more satisfying than adding only the broadest of strokes to a massive canvas populated by a thousand extras. Secondly, that sort of package – if not always the smaller pay package that goes with it – must be more attractive to a serious actor who wants a script they can get their teeth into, not one that requires hanging in a harness in front of a green screen for a week.
In Roberts Duvall and Downey Jr (the DVD bills them the other way around, but that simply isn’t right) The Judge has the core of a project that has to succeed on some level. This high-powered duo, who play an estranged father and son who reconnect when the elder man is accused of involvement in a murder – not an ideal theme for a reunion – are supported by a cast of almost equal ability in Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Billy Bob Thornton and Dax Shepard (that last not in the same league but a vastly underrated screen presence). Downey has become bigger than the characters he plays, so that every time he appears on screen it’s as a version of himself – charming, intelligent and cocky – with a new scenario to inhabit and a different set of tools to manipulate. That said, he’s a master of his schtick, and it’s a formula with unfading appeal. Duvall is technically more impressive, inhabiting the shell of a man who’s used to calling the shots but is now seeing a life’s work and the fine reputation that effort accumulated being scrutinised in a way he can’t control. Thornton adds slick, reptilian resolve to his lawyer character and Farmiga, as Downey’s love interest, is strong and utterly beguiling – better than he deserves, and both characters know it. There is magnificent dialogue and richly imagined relationships between the judge and his sons and between their family and the other citizens of the small town in which they live. The thread following the legal procedures of the case in which the judge is implicated is complex but well structured and easy to follow, and director David Dobkin paces everything brilliantly. This is a skilfully made piece that’s deeply satisfying to watch.
John Travolta’s career has, since his glory days in the Seventies, staggered around like a punch-drunk heavyweight asked to wear stilettoes on the way back to the gym change room. You know there’s still potential there but what he’s doing at any given time doesn’t seem to make a hell of a lot of sense. Happily, The Forger is a recent peak, not least because it takes one popular formula – the heist movie – and reimagines it as a thoughtful drama co-starring Christopher Plummer. The script involves fine art as well – a famous painting by Claude Monet, no less – to further set it apart from the building-block efforts that clog up cinemas and TV channels. Travolta’s forger must learn that selfishness is a multi-layered emotion and that what he believes he is doing for others, he might be doing for himself (and by doing so, actually endanger those he loves). His journey from career criminal to, well, reluctant criminal is a textured one, presented in measured strides by director Philip Martin. Plummer doesn’t need to try too hard to impress – he’s essentially playing the same sort of father figure/knowledgeable geezer role occupied by Michael Caine in many of the latter’s late-career efforts – but he’s a steadying presence, and newcomer Tye Sheridan can’t really help but put in a good shift when surrounded by such experience.
Devil’s Knot is a much trickier affair. It’s a dark crime mystery that involves dead children, anguished parents and possible miscarriages of justice, and would be hard to watch if it were only the figment of someone’s imagination. But it’s based on a terrible true story and as such will make you despair for our species. Colin Firth’s flawed lawyer and Reese Witherspoon’s desperate mother are the standout roles, but as it becomes clear that there can be no happy ending to a situation in which three youngsters disappear and then are found dead, with three barely older youths arrested for their murders, you’ll understand that this is not a film that entertains so much as it warns: don’t underestimate what your neighbours and acquaintances are capable of. And on the other hand, don’t leap to conclusions about that capacity either.
Family plays, in some ways, less of a prominent role in The Hundred-Foot Journey, which is about clashes of culture on different levels – national identity, yes (French versus Indian), but also food and how it functions as a major part of social interaction, as well as differing definitions of success, be they achieving personal milestones or getting some sort of badge that tells everyone else how special you are. Steven Knight’s screenplay, based on the book by Richard C Morais, is gentle but persuasive. Violence is not expected and it doesn’t occur; this is about more subtle forces, including old-fashioned competition, paranoia, ingrained prejudice, ethics, creativity and relationships. As such, it engages its audience on a number of levels, making you laugh, making you think, making you uncomfortable and leaving you, ultimately, inspired to mend some unnecessarily patchy fences in your own life. Helen Mirren and Om Puri as the leads are fantastic, well-matched in their abilities and in their characters’ will to win. Director Lasse Hallstrom makes everything look wonderful, and the food is so beautifully presented you may find yourself salivating as you watch.