By BRUCE DENNILL
Chronically Metropolitan / Directed by Xavier Manrique / 16DLS
Breathe / Directed by Andy Serkis / PGV
The Zookeeper’s Wife / Directed by Niki Caro / 13V
The Promise / Directed by Terry George / 16PV
Wonder Woman / Directed by Patty Jenkins / PGV
Battle Of The Sexes / Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris / 13DPS
Chronically Metropolitan takes the same plot as a hundred other films before it – talented artist achieves breakthrough, then returns home to dysfunctional family and first love to try and remedy regrets, only to be brought firmly back down to earth by a succession of incidents that may include adultery (check), divorce (check) and sabotaging a wedding (check). If such derivative material was at least put together with some heart, it might make for passable entertainment, but everyone involved is so mean-spirited and hollow that it’s a struggle to finish watching the film, let alone enjoy it. This is a scenario in which empathy has been poisoned by privilege, and watching nasty rich people behave smugly is not a whole lot of fun, whatever the theme. Skip it.
Based on a true story, Andy Serkis’ directorial debut Breathe is a carefully crafted, old-fashioned drama. Andrew Garfield plays Robin Cavendish, a multi-talented, charming Englishman who succeeds at everything he does and is liked by everyone he meets. He falls in love with and marries Diana Blacker (Claire Foy), a woman of similar character, and they’re revoltingly happy and beautiful until Cavendish falls ill (literally) wit what is later diagnosed as polio. To begin with, Cavendish’s resolve deserts him. Fortunately, Blacker’s does not and her strength is what drags him onto a path that will see him and his friends and relatives make huge strides in making life for polio sufferers more comfortable and establishing more rights for them, and himself. What is perhaps most compelling is the refusal of Cavendish and his quirky (read: quintessentially English eccentricity) supporters to give up, no matter the odds stacked against them. Tom Hollander plays Cavendish’s twin brothers, clumsily helpful and permanently cheerful, while Hugh Bonneville has an enormous amount of fun as Teddy Hall, an inventor friend of the couple’s who gets involved heart and soul in the interests of helping his pal but soon begins to make milestone breakthroughs in terms of the technology he designs, first for Cavendish and then for others who are similarly afflicted. There are moments of great mirth among all the introspection and the film’s ultimate exhortation – to move forward and try and contribute positively in whatever situation you find yourself – is an edifying one.
Jessica Chastain is all over the place as an actress – popping up in a dozen different genres and carrying films with something between ease (at worst) and effectiveness (at worst). In The Zookeeper’s Wife, in the title role, she manages something between the two as Antonina Zabinska, a Polish woman who, with her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) were running the Warsaw Zoo when World War Two began. When the Nazis invaded, the Zabinskas’ beloved animals were in the firing line immediately, with the Reich’s chief zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) revealing himself to be an increasingly malevolent force as time goes by. Much of the film is relatively low-key – there is a sense that it may have needed Chastain’s star power to get across the line in terms of greenlighting – but the power of a well-told war story (this one is based on truth) is well manipulated here, with the cruelty of the Nazis and the compassion and resourcefulness of the Zabinskas and other resistance fighters being respectively horrific and inspiring. Bruhl gives perhaps the best performance, making Heck icily callous without ever letting him become a clichéd villain. Ultimately, the piece’s elements add up to something rather special – not the huge, guns-blazing (if you will) spectacle of several recent war films, but a drama packed with the powerful emotions, each deeply felt by the viewer, aroused by everyday heroism under unimaginable pressure.
Making films that highlight genocides that the bulk of viewers are unlikely to have been aware of is not an easy sell. The aggressors probably don’t want reminding of shameful parts of their heritage, and the audience fascinated by such subject matter is rather more niche than that happy to mindlessly wonder through the Transformers saga or some such. Director Terry George’s effort makes a fair fist of it, though, looking like a Golden Age epic, but ultimately leaving its audience in no doubt as to the extent and horror of the campaign by the Ottoman Empire, as the First World War was being fought all over Europe to wipe out over a million Armenians. In truth, the other major focus of the piece, a love triangle featuring medical student Michael (Oscar Isaac), high-born Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) and investigative journalist Chris (Christian Bale) is not terribly convincing, or perhaps even necessary at all. Bale’s performance is more about furrowing his brow and looking grumpy than suggesting reasons a desirable woman would choose his character over the much more engaging Michael. But that thread does make The Promise much more of a lush Hollywood drama than the rather bleaker documentary-style piece that might have resulted had production choices been different. Ultimately, you’re likely to be moved by the historical import of the project as much as the writing or acting or any other facet, but that’s not a bad thing: anyone who did not know the backstory to this feature and who now does is the richer for it.
Wonder Woman found itself placed at the apex of a feminist movement when it came out in cinemas, but frankly, that’s a distraction from the piece’s many other positive qualities. For one thing, it is far and away the best DC film since The Dark Knight and is the major reason that particular film universe is still chugging along. It also made Gal Gadot a bona fide leading lady, and more than that, a genuine Hollywood powerhouse, both of which are reasons to celebrate, as fans of charisma and talent and as observers sick to death of the poisonous, masochistic system that’s driven the film industry for years. Where there are weaknesses in the story, they’re those that are par for the course in every superhero film – the overcooked CGI; the relatively weaker writing when it comes to the romantic interludes; a couple of other moments. It sidesteps one of the major clichés of these stories, that being the wading through angst that is usually the major theme for a third of the running time. That’s not entirely absent, as there has to be sacrifice if anyone is to be a hero, but Gadot’s Diana/Wonder Woman is a far more encouraging sort than gruff Batman or serious Superman. What also sets her apart is her naivete. She is not the all-knowing, all-powerful war machine and moral compass you might expect, but rather, certainly to begin with, an ingénue unaware of exactly what she is capable of or of what the best course of action might be. That this version of the character grows from there to become the foundation of what is becoming a longer franchise is down to both good writing and the sure hand of director Patty Jenkins, who ties all the divergent chords of the story together with remarkably little fuss, making the mythology easy to understand, something that doesn’t always seem to be a priority with storytellers in this market.
Tennis is not the easiest sport to make an exciting film about. It doesn’t have the structure of longer team games where there are a set number of periods in which to get business done, or the possibility of the dynamics between teammates having an important influence on the outcome of a match. But it was, at the beginning of the Seventies, the domain of Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), the number one women’s tennis player in the world. Also on the scene was Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a gifted but arrogant operator on the men’s circuit in his younger days, but now a relentlessly self-promoting media hound and dyed-in-the-wool masochist who sees an opportunity to make a pile of cash by challenging King to an exhibition match – the “battle” of the film’s title. The script cleverly unpacks the complex psyches, motivations and personal lives of both of its protagonists – two compelling tales on their own even before they intersect. King was one of the progenitors of the movement to put female athletes on an equal footing with their male counterparts in terms of earnings and prestige, and was looked up to by colleagues and fans alike as a role model and leader. At the same time, she was struggling with her sexuality and, as a result, with her marriage. Riggs has his own struggles. His success is based on maintaining a high profile, often achieved through some or other constructed scandal, and the stress of either finding a way to remain in the spotlight or worrying about dropping out of it is taking its toll. This drama, and the humour that tenderness that are woven into it, make Battle Of The Sexes a film that is only very superficially to do with tennis but which has plenty to do with strategy, fitness for a task and preparing to win. Recommended.