By BRUCE DENNILL
Grace Of Monaco / Directed by Olivier Dahan / PG12 4
Child 44 / Directed by Daniel Espinosa / 16V 7
The Homesman / Directed by Tommy Lee Jones / 16LSV 7.5
A Little Chaos / Directed by Alan Rickman / 13S 7.5
Serena / Directed by Susanne Bier / 13SV 3
Films telling stories either influenced by or purportedly directly based on historical facts are often placed in a catch-22 situation – tell a tale with pinpoint precision and not excite anyone overmuch, or cherry-pick inaccurately and come up with something that is relatively easy to relate to but factual fluff.
Grace Of Monaco puts legendary European princess/Hollywood star Grace Kelly squarely in the spotlight. The “legendary” part is perhaps the major issue: much of the real-life woman’s story weaves from myth to truth and back again, and maybe what was on offer outside of the various scripts she had to follow (on screen or in the Monaco royal residences) simply wasn’t that interesting. Either that’s the case, or this is not a very well-made film. Whatever the case, the impact made by Nicole Kidman in the title role is underwehelming. She is, one would think, perfectly cast, having both leading lady looks and the ability to come across as brittle and uncertain; the latter the natural response for a young woman cast into a world of prescriptive protocol and political intrigue. This facet is clumsily handled, which is a pity – the possible invasion of Monaco by France was potentially interesting fodder, and Tim Roth could, given a bit more leeway, have made his Prince Rainier III a more forceful presence. Much time is spent waiting for something to happen, but not much ever does. It all looks beautiful, but that appeal is only skin-deep.
Daniel Espinosa’s Child 44 is a more mysterious option. At its heart are a series of crimes that really happened; the terrifying work of Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, who was responsible for at least 52 murders between 1978 and 1990. The film is set in the early Fifties, when Stalin was in charge of the Soviet Union and paranoia was widespread and entrenched in almost every part of society. Had there been a decision taken to focus solely on that atmosphere of distrust or just on the murder mystery angle, this would have been a better film. As it is, though it takes a while to separate the politics from the thriller, the cast – particularly Tom Hardy as a secret police agent whose loyalty to the state doesn’t extend quite as far as it might – give the piece both sobriety and honesty. From that base, the drive to prioritise the search for the murderer and to stop him quickly involves the viewer, becoming an emotional priority. There’s not much cheer in this film, but in terms of slow-brewed craft, there’s plenty to cheer about.
The Homesman is based on a fictional book, but explores, like many Westerns, the theme of how harsh living on the frontier was in the mid 19th century, when the US was being expanded and developed. A situation arises in which three women living in that context are driven mad by their circumstances. Their tiny community can’t handle such an occurrence, and a decision is taken to transport them from Nebraska to Iowa, where there is a facility in which they can receive care. As it turns out, the only person man enough to take on the challenge is one Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), but capable as she is, she realises she can’t handle the hardship herself, and drafts a rough-edged transient (Tommy Lee Jones, who also directs) to be an extra set of eyes and hands. The pair’s developing relationship – they initially despise each other, but also need each other as the unforgiving landscape presents trial after trial – is gritty and compelling. But it is the unflinching brutality of the script that both shocks and engages, from the way the mad women are treated to the measures that must be taken in order to survive on the trail. Jone’s reputation and little black book means there are a number of wonderful cameos from the likes of John Lithgow, James Spader and Meryl Streep to bolster the already impressive core cast of the film. It’s not at all easy to watch, but it’s a powerful chronicle of a cruel time and the people that had to survive it.
In the light of Alan Rickman having passed away last year, A Little Chaos remains an intriguing window on where he might have progressed as a director (it was the second and last film he helmed). Its primary charm is the unique nature of its plot: it concerns the exploits of a gardener brought on to help with the landscaping at the palace of Versailles during Louis XIV’s reign. The twist is that the gardener, Sabine, is a woman in an age when all such important and high-level tasks were assigned to men. That feminist angle is important but not really crucial to the plot, which offers a fascinating insight (even if the detail is not necessarily historically accurate) into a period in the European past when class and gender equality were rather less open to debate and opulence – at least in the Sun King’s court – was a given. Seeing the art involved – the design of the gardens and the challenges involved in developing them – being imagined and then created is part of the enjoyment, and a great performance from Kate Winslet as Sabine, is well supported by Matthias Schoenaerts as the king’s landscaper Andre Le Notre and Rickman as King Louis. And aside from the interesting story, the period drama minutia are beautifully observed.
Serena takes viewers to North Carolina in the 1920s, when the Great Depression was, well, depressing. Newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton are doing their best to build an empire based on timber, and a reasonable amount of ruthlessness is required merely to ensure survival. That makes the couple difficult to like to a certain degree, but it doesn’t explain their sustained lack of charm throughout the whole of the film. The combined box office pull and proven chemistry of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as the Pembertons was presumably supposed to make this a hark back to the Golden Age romantic dramas, but for that to work, there’d have to be both romance and drama. That the writing is bad and the script is dull and plodding is not the actors’ fault, though it does suggest they didn’t read it as thoroughly as they might have before shooting began. That their performances are so flat, though, is all their responsibility. There’s loads of moodiness, endless angst, and not a soul you care enough about to maintain interest until the end of the film.