Film Reviews For The Cine-Literate

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The Children Act

Recently I reviewed a movie adaptation of “On Chesil Beach,” a novella by prominent English writer Ian McEwan. McEwan has been cinematically busy, for this month another of his novels, “The Children Act,” also appears on film with McEwan again the screenwriter. His script, along with the efforts of veteran director Richard Eyre, provides for one of the best roles actress Emma Thompson has had in years.

In contemporary London, Judge Fiona Maye (Thompson) is a stern but earnest justice in the city’s family court, driven in a job which entails some of the knottier problems of the day, including a Solomonic judgment she makes at the beginning of the film about conjoined twins. The pressures on her have turned her marriage with university classics lecturer Jack (Stanley Tucci) sour, so sour that he openly announces that he wants to have an affair with one of his students.

Still, Maye carries on, confronted with a thorny case involving the Henry family. They, as Jehovah’s Witnesses, object to a blood transfusion which doctors insist their teenage son Adam (Fionn Whitehead), suffering from leukemia, must have to save his life. The father (Ben Chaplin) insists that their religion forbids the transfer of fluids from another person, and Adam should be left in God’s hands. Judge Maye must decide to grant the family’s wishes or intervene to let the transfusion proceed. To help resolve this dilemma, she takes the unusual step of visiting the hospital to interview the boy, who forthrightly rejects the transfusion. Nevertheless, the judge, considering the “Children Act” of 1988 which states that “children's welfare should be the paramount concern of the courts,” rules that Adam must undergo the procedure.

Here the film takes a troubling turnabout. Rejuvenated, almost reborn, by the transfusion, Adam contrives to look up, even stalk Maye, becoming infatuated with her, writing poems to her, and seeing her as a kind of savior in tune with his soul. Puzzled by, yet also touched by his attentions, Maye plays the adult and tries to bring the lad back down to earth, but when he shows up, rain-sodden, at a formal party she is attending outside London, something must be done.

The character of Jack Maye seems somewhat underwritten, but Tucci makes his distress with the marriage plausible and stays mostly stalwart in his concern for Fiona. Adam is most convincingly embodied by young Whitehead, who won plaudits last year as a young soldier in “Dunkirk.” Playing at first bristling defiance, he later switches to earnest, fawning youth without breaking stride. His lively eyes and curled mouth remind this reviewer of the young Tom Courtenay some 55 years ago.

This is not the sweet, often comedic Emma Thompson we’ve seen before. Judge Maye is demanding with people, especially her downtrodden clerk Nigel (Jason Watkins), cynical about family life (she and Jack are childless), striving to achieve a kind of queenly serenity above the messy cases she faces. Thompson, balancing both knitted brows (in court) and sympathetic gestures (in hospital), captures this woman’s balancing act brilliantly. For a person who above all wants to maintain control, she finds her defensive façade is cracking with the attentions of the swoony teenager as the movie moves to a disconcerting finale. This last adjective is an inadvertent pun, as the end of the picture has Judge Maye, stumbling, groping at a piano recital while playing the wistful Irish tune “Down by the Salley Gardens,” the theme song of this touching film.

(The film is rated "R" for mature themes and runs 105 mins.)

(September 2018)

Emma Thompson stars as a family judge under pressure in “The Children Act.”
Photo courtesy of A24 Pictures.

The Wife

Glenn Close has had a kaleidoscopic career in motion pictures since her notable film debut in 1982 (“The World According to Garp”) and currently has the distinction of being the actor with the most Oscar nominations (6) who has never won the trophy. She’s probably OK with that, but it doesn’t mean that she, at 71, is through trying. In her latest film “The Wife,” Close brings a performance that could win her lauds in the next awards season.

Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) is the self-deprecating rock behind her novelist husband, the mercurial Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce). We meet them on the night when, in great anticipation, they receive a phone call informing Joe that he has won the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature. The scene shifts quickly to Stockholm, where the couple settles in—with their grown son David (Max Irons)--to prepare for the award ceremony. Their stay is a minefield of parties, event rehearsals, misunderstandings, mutual digs, and reprisals. Joe, bloated in his celebrity, has the gall to explain to one admirer that “my wife doesn’t write, thank God.”

Interspersed with the Stockholm scenes are flashbacks to the Castleman’s origin story, beginning in 1958 at Smith College, where the young lit professor Joe (Harry Lloyd)) charms the prepossessed but admiring student Joan (Annie Starke). Later sequences show their backstory, first living together, then finding a home with kids, and, always, Joan aiding Joe with his writing, ready to refashion and polish his prose with crucial edits.

Back in Stockholm, when Joan sees Joe hitting on a young photographer, her umbrage sends her out to seek a stiff one. Thus begins a key sequence where Joan is joined in a bar by the nosy Nathaniel Bone (an unctuous Christian Slater), Castleman’s unauthorized biographer who, over drinks, tries to get Joan to drop her “supportive wife” façade and confess her real contribution to her husband’s work. The exchange develops slowly, with light fencing, but builds in tension as the sly, insinuating Bone schemes to arouse Joan to reveal her true literary bent. It is the core of the picture and a masterful two-shot episode.

The Nobel ceremony is a semi-climax, and the film ends in a finale which—though undoubtedly dramatic—feels contrived and extreme rather than subtle and affecting. It is a flaw in the plot, although the production is otherwise carefully crafted by Swedish director Bjorn Runge (working from a novel written by Meg Wolitzer).

Striking is the resemblance and demeanor of young Joan played by Annie Starke, no surprise because she is the real daughter of Close, now launched on her own acting career. She carries the same cool customer vibe that her mom personifies in the rest of the picture. Her coolness is nicely contrasted with the twitchy, randy figure of the young Joe, played by Lloyd. Welshman Jonathan Pryce, playing an irresponsible and ebullient Brooklynite, is a wonderful contrast to Close’s tamped-down spouse. He clumsily loves Joan in his shambling way but cannot help himself by belittling her and consigning her to dutiful helpmate status.

Overall, “The Wife” is a showcase for Glenn Close, a role that tests her mettle for contained resentment and rage. She passes that test, elevating “bottling up” to an art form. Ever protective of her wayward hubby while stifling her contributions to his life and output, Joan is a caged animal in modest, wifely garb. A scene that projects her inner tumult most resonantly is during a pre-awards dinner, when she has to listen to Joe damn her with overweening praise when she asked him not to; her stony posture, clenched mouth, and, especially, her scorching eyes reveal a soul ready to explode. Yet Close is able to still play a woman committed to her family of 30-plus years, able to thrill at being a grandmother and to rush to rescue a fallen husband. Her performance is peerless.

(The film runs 100 minutes and is rated "R".)

(August 2018)

Left to right: Glenn Close as Joan and Jonathan Pryce as Joe in "The Wife."
Photo by Graeme Hunter, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics


A new character-driven charmer has come to city screens. “Puzzle” is a modest story of self-discovery whose origin is not literary but rather based on another movie script. Its achievements, too, are relatively modest, except for a superb lead performance from an actor too little known: Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald.

“Puzzle” introduces us to the circumscribed life of Agnes (Macdonald), dutiful wife of burly auto mechanic Louie (David Denham) and mom of two mature boys, living in the house of her widowed father where she grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The film opens with a sequence devoid of dialogue in which Agnes takes on every menial task for a family party in a setting that appears to be the mid-1950’s. Only well in do we realize that the party is for her own 40th birthday and the time is contemporary, since one son gives her an iPhone as a present. Another gift is a jigsaw puzzle, which she accepts placidly. Once alone, working the puzzle, she solves it readily. It is the first time she experiences the heady thrill of being very good at something.

A visit to a puzzle shop leads to her answering a request (while learning how to manipulate her iPhone) for teaming up with another puzzler for competitions. Thus, Agnes anxiously goes to the Manhattan townhouse of Robert (Irrfan Khan), a wealthy, one-time inventor. Robert immediately recognizes her talent and recruits her as his partner for an upcoming national jigsaw tournament. Though still mired in her routine life, Agnes now has an outlet to a wider world (about which her family knows nothing). The stimulus of puzzling and conversing with sophisticated, enigmatic Robert finds her both discovering new aspects of herself and taking on a new assertiveness in dealing with the men in her family. Though Louie and sons are puzzled by and critical of her newfound boldness, she gently defies them and enters the national jigsaw contest to test her mettle—and perhaps to change her future.

Kelly Macdonald first drew cinematic attention as a young woman in British pictures like “Trainspotting” (1996) and “Gosford Park” (2001). Since, she has made an impression in a great variety of films and TV shows on both sides of the pond, perhaps most notably in “No Country for Old Men” (2007) and the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” (2010-14). In “Puzzle,” she is pretty much the whole show, appearing in virtually every scene, and pulling off the transformation of the timid drudge to a self-confident woman while still maintaining a modest demeanor and quiet tone (delivered in an excellent American accent). Her standing up to her husband and family is the more touching for being measured, never agitated. She a mouse that finds her roar.

Marc Turtletaub, a longtime Hollywood producer, here directs for the first time from a script by Polly Mann and Oren Moverman (“Love and Mercy”), who adapted the story from an Argentine film of 2009 called “Rompecabezas” (which means “puzzle” in Spanish). The script and production, according to Turtletaub, tried to avoid making Agnes a totally browbeaten, pathetic creature and to likewise avoid making Louie a one-note slob: to depict a mundane but naturalistic family. All the actors do fine work in this context, especially Denham, who portrays a decent if rough guy who truly loves his wife but wants comfortable, predictable patterns in his life. Irrfan Khan (“The Lunchbox”), grand, imposing and imperious in voice, contrasts in every way from the vulnerable Agnes, but he makes his infatuation with her believable.

(The film is rated “R” and runs 102 minutes.)

Kelly Macdonald on “Puzzle”

Kelly Macdonald, along with her director Marc Turtletaub, appeared in Washington in mid-July for a preview screening of “Puzzle” and took questions about their new film.

Macdonald opened by saying that the script for the film “bowled me over,” in part because so much of her character was portrayed without dialogue. The biggest thing she realized about her character in the opening scenes was that she “was completely invisible—she’s not there!” She said she prepared in part by watching a lot of silent films to study how to put muteness into action and even looked for ways “to get rid of some dialogue” to further ground her performance of Agnes. (In an aside, Turtletaub said he purposely aimed to have Macdonald “fade into the wallpaper patterned on her old dresses to seem old-fashioned”).

For the family scenes, Macdonald said she and the rest of the cast “just hung out” in a house in Yonkers, New York, for six weeks. They did not rehearse. “You have to become friendly quickly,” she remarked “to establish a rapport.” Much of that team building came from “spending time in the back garden (of the location house) in lawn chairs—good ones—bought from Costco.” Asked about how she achieved a viable American accent, the Scottish actress—who normally possesses a lovely brogue—said “having a good dialogue coach on set.”

Macdonald knew nothing of the competitive puzzling scene when she came into the film but developed her own routine to appear to be a competent solver and “that came to have a reverberating effect” on her performance. She found the Agnes character “lovely” and her development a pleasure to take on. “We don’t know how her journey ends,” Macdonald noted, “but she needs to go on a personal journey.”

(August 2018)

Left to right: Kelly Macdonald as Agnes and Irrfan Khan as Robert.
Photo by Linda Kallerus, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics