Gran Torino

Approaching his eightieth birthday, Clint Eastwood directs himself in what might be his last screen appearance in Gran Torino, an intemperate State of the Nation address that mixes melodrama, social commentary, comedy and a lot of squint-eyed growling to winning effect.

Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a crusty former car-factory worker who, as the film opens, is burying his late wife. His two sons are raising their own families now so Walt lives alone in a big house in a neighbourhood that has seen an influx of Asian immigrants. Being an unrepentant bigot and a veteran of the Korean war, Walt doesn’t care much for the new arrivals, unleashing a tirade of racially insensitive epithets at the merest provocation. He sits on his veranda most evenings, knocking back cans of beer and smoking cigarettes, growling and snarling at whoever crosses his line of sight. Walt’s only kind words are reserved for his dog, Daisy. His most treasured possession is a mint-condition 1972 Ford Gran Torino, a throaty American muscle car that Walt built himself on the production line. It sits shining on his driveway, a symbol of the way things used to be.

Walt especially dislikes his next-door neighbours, a recently arrived family from the Hmong community in Laos; a recently divorced mother, her elderly grandmother and two young kids, Sue (Ahney Her) and Thao (Bee Vang). When a gang of local thugs start harassing the shy teenager Thao, Walt cannot help but get involved. Typically for the man, he does this by knocking the wannabe gangsters on their backsides, sticking the barrel of his enormous rifle in their faces and snarling. The thugs don’t get the message (they obviously haven’t seen Dirty Harry) and their campaign of harassment quickly escalates to drive-by shootings and assaults. Walt might be a racist but he can’t stand bullying and so a friendship develops under siege between the ancient dinosaur with his old-fashioned ideas and the two young kids.

I don’t want to say much more than that about the plot, except to note that Eastwood is far too smart (and far too liberally-minded) to allow his bile-spitting Walt to become a flag-bearer for intolerance. It's tough to listen to this old man bark racial epitets at the younger cast, and it doesn't matter that they are too polite to tell him he's wrong. They seem able to ignore the racial taunts, but we cannot, not really. This is a character primed from the opening scenes for change, the challenge being how successfully Eastwood brings this about. He does this, in part, by explicitly referencing his own back catalogue of tough-guy roles and then, gently but persistently, re-positioning Walt as an agent for good.

The script, from newcomer Nick Schenk, builds from the obvious to the unexpected with a certain clunking grace, even as it relies too much on cinematic shorthand to get its message across. Nevertheless, this is a fine film, initially disconcertingly odd and contrived but eventually both emotionally frank and satisfyingly redemptive.

Vicky Christina Barcelona

Woody Allen continues his late-period European tour with a trip to Spain for Vicky Christina Barcelona, an engaging but weightless story of a couple of American girls on extended summer vacation in the Catalan capital that get into all sorts of romantic adventures with the hot-blooded locals.

We first meet the titular Vicky and Christina as they step off the plane. Tall, serious brunette Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is there to stay with her ex-pat aunt and uncle (Patricia Clarkson and Kevin Dunn) while completing her graduate thesis on Catalan identity. Her best friend, the blonde and frivolous Christina (Allen’s latest muse Scarlett Johansson) is along for the ride, looking to relax after a year spent making a dull student film for her art school degree. Christina is looking for adventure but Vicky has had enough of all that, she's accepted a marriage proposal from her buttoned-down Wall Street sweetheart Doug (Chris Messina). She's safe.

Having completed their whistle-stop excursion around Barcelona’s landmarks – mostly Gaudi, mostly shot as postcards – the girls attend an art exhibition and meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a brooding artist and bon vivant. With devastating frankness, he asks the two young Americans to fly away with him for a weekend in the nearby town of Oviedo, ostensibly to see the sights, but also to share his bed. Just the three of them. Prim, proper Vicky is outraged but Christina is already sitting on the plane, buckling her seat belt, smitten by Juan Antonio’s other-worldly intensity and heavy-lidded stare.

Sexual misadventures and misunderstandings ensue. Vicky, torn between her duty to her fiancée and her desire to live a little, inoculates herself from Juan Antonio’s charms but Christina is badly smitten, spending her days in his studio and her nights in his bed. Then, about an hour in, the film kicks into life with the arrival of Juan Antonio’s tempestuous ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), who explodes onto the screen in a blaze of bouffant hair and fiery eyes, bringing some much needed drama and passion to what was a fading scenario. The film is worth seeing for Cruz’s performance alone.

Allen fans, and they remain a legion, await his annual releases with an undying sense of anticipation, hoping for another Annie Hall or Manhattan. It doesn’t look like it’s ever going to happen. Vicky Christina Barcelona is a bright, fizzy concoction that zips along at a fair clip and contains pointed mediations on the nature of love and the passion of creativity. Intended as a spiky summer romance, there’s still something unnervingly odd about Bardem’s irresistible machismo and something of an indulgent male fantasy about his studied dalliances with the hearts of three beautiful women. Positioned as the centre of the Catalan universe, the actor has enough appeal to carry the role. We should be grateful for Bardem’s bulky pugnacity. Ten years ago Woody might have played the part himself.

After the dreadful gangster misfire Cassandra’s Dream, Allen’s return to comedy drama is welcome, although ‘comedy’ might be stretching it as, barring a great moment with a pistol, there aren’t really any jokes. Come to think of it, Oscar-winner Cruz aside, there isn’t all that much in the way of drama either. I’m not sure what that leaves us with, but it all looks very sunny and pretty.

Gabriel Byrne

Gabriel Byrne is standing before a hundred people in the tiny Phoenix cinema in Dingle watching two men struggle towards him bearing the Gregory Peck Award, a weighty collision of granite and engraved glass. With a theatrical stagger, Byrne takes the sculpture in both arms and sets it down on a table beside him. He gives a tender, sincere speech about how honoured he feels, how Peck is one of his inspirations, how even hearing his name in the same sentence as the great actor makes him humble. When he is finished, the crowd rise to applaud him. He waves and smiles, genuinely delighted, standing for photographs and shaking every offered hand.

Ten minutes earlier, Byrne was slumped in his seat, gripping his girlfriend’s wrist, his eyes fixed on the floor. He shifted uncomfortably as the host gave an introduction and we watched a reel of highlights from his film career. The moments flickered past; a rousing speech from Miller’s Crossing, the shoot-out on the boat from The Usual Suspects, a spiteful row from Jindabyne. As the montage continued, the actor sank lower in his chair. It was a mild night in September but watching himself on the Phoenix’s crackling screen, Byrne looked flushed, almost embarrassed.

The moment the lights came up and his name was called, all that unease evaporated. Byrne straightened his spine and squared his shoulders and strode up to the podium. A look of infinite calm fell across his face and stayed there. He spoke fluently, with tremendous charm.

From two seats down in the same row, I watched Byrne’s transformation and wondered what it means to be an actor, to smoulder in the wings and glow on stage.

Earlier the same day, I sat with Byrne in a comfortable room in Emlagh House, by a vast window filled with slate autumnal clouds, looking out over the bay. In the broken afternoon light, he doesn’t look much like a man approaching his fifty-ninth birthday. His handsome face has taken on a crease or two and his black hair is fringed with grey, but the actor looks fresh and vital. I ask him if he can recall his first impressions of the cinema and he sips his coffee. “I grew up in a world before television”, he says. “The main source of entertainment for young kids of my age in working class Dublin was the cinema and there was one on every street. We’d go as a gang maybe three or four times a week to the Apollo in Walkinstown, The Star, The Leinster or The Kenilworth in Harold’s Cross. I liked cowboy movies, gangster films, comedies. My imaginative life was lived in the picture house. I was transfixed then and I still am, sometimes. Cinemas are magical places.”

The spell wasn’t broken when the credits rolled. Byrne recalls how his gang would re-enact scenes from the films in the streets around the neighbourhood, each of his pals taking a role and playing out their understanding of the plot. “One of the lad’s fathers was a plumber and had a garage. When he wasn’t there we’d sneak in and use it as a playground. I remember there was one old war film that made a big impression on us. Afterwards though, there was a problem. We fought each other to be the captured pilots but one poor fella had to play Rhonda Fleming, a spy interrogating us about where the guns were buried, or whatever. Our casting choices were limited.”

The first time Byrne realised that movies were made in the real world by working professionals, he was nine or ten. “I was on the mitch from school, on a bus going down through The Coombe. There was this enormous traffic jam and everyone was leaning out the windows, trying to see what was going on. Word came down the street that they were making a film called Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx, so I got off to get a proper look. There was this throng of people in St Patrick’s Park surrounding Gene Wilder, who was sitting on a bench. I pushed my way through to the front of the crowd and watched Wilder eating an onion sandwich for the scene. If he ate one sandwich he ate twenty of them, repeating the same facial expressions every time. I heard them call “cut!” and Wilder relaxed completely. He sat there quietly by himself until they shouted ‘action!’ again and his face lit up. That was the first time I had ever seen an actor working.”

“Very few films were made at that time in Ireland. I remember these stories that were going around about Ryan’s Daughter; whispered legends seeping up to Dublin from Dunquin about the nine months David Lean was kept waiting for this dramatic storm he needed for the finale. It was 1969 or 1970 now and I was in Sinnott’s pub one night. At around ten o’clock the door burst open and Archie O’Sullivan swept in. Archie was this great old Dublin actor who had a small part in the movie. But there was nothing small about Archie. This particular evening he had come all the way from Kerry to King Street in a taxi, for a pint. He nodded his order and lifted out of his pocket this big blue note, a fifty. Nobody had ever even seen one before, at least not in my circle. The bar fell quiet. Archie held the fifty aloft like a prize and let it flutter to the counter. ‘Film money’, he boomed. Jesus, I thought to myself, I am in the wrong job.”

Byrne wasn’t doing much of anything at that time in Dublin. “I had come back from a working holiday in Spain and trained to be a teacher. I was working away but there was this thing in the back of my mind all the time. I knew I wanted to keep travelling and see a bit of the world. Then I started going to the Dublin Shakespeare Society - which sounds much grander than it actually was - because I didn’t want to spend every evening in the pub. I discovered there were people that were into a lot of the same things I was into.”

With this, Byrne leans towards me, as if to impart a secret. “It was unusual, to say the least, to express a desire to be an actor in those days. Only about a month after I joined the Shakespeare Society the car bombs went off in Dublin and Monaghan. The walk up Parnell Square brought you along streets with cars parked on both sides, each of which now seemed like a threat. I remember feeling that my desire to go out and talk about Shakespeare was greater than my fear of a bomb going off. There was something driving me to go out and do this, something more than just the notion of acting or performing. It was half instinct and half uncontrollable passion.”

Byrne gives a throaty laugh at his own grandiloquence. For an actor habitually described as ‘brooding’, he laughs a lot, coughs of amusement that punctuate his steady, rolling conversational manner. He has the actor’s habit of voicing both sides when quoting conversations, dredging old encounters and memories for illuminating moments, which he then describes in a few precise words. Listening to him speak about his past I get the same sense of emotional recall that jumps from the pages of first volume of his memoirs, 'Pictures In My Head', written over a number of years and published in 2001. It is a book about childhood, mostly, vividly drawn stories about his childhood in 1950s Dublin as the eldest of six children.

When I mention the autobiography, Byrne tells me he is working on a second volume, picking up the story in Dublin in the 1970s and his beginnings as an actor, training at the Project theatre and the Abbey and his first big break, a role on rural soap-opera The Riordans. “In those days, there was only one channel so everyone watched that show. They didn’t have a choice. When my role finished, I found myself having somehow become a proper working actor. There was a spin-off called Bracken and when that came to an end, I knew the time was right to move to London. I was thinking to myself, if you can get away with doing that here, maybe you could get away with it on a bigger stage. I wanted to keep going.”

Byrne tells me there were a couple of factors involved in his making the first move abroad. “Television was more real to people in those days. I’d be stopped on the street and they used to say to me, ‘You’d better watch yourself. Benjy knows what you’re up to with Maggie’. I couldn’t deal with that kind of recognition at all. It wasn’t what I wanted.” The other aspect was his relationship with the late Áine O’Connor. “Áine was a presenter on RTE and was very well known and very popular. We were sitting in a pub one day, talking about my future and she turned to me and said, ‘Life is very short. Take your chance and don’t have any regrets’. She gave up her job on television, which was an enormous sacrifice to make, and came to London with me. We were together for ten years and were the best of friends. When she died [in 1998], I felt a huge loss.”

By the time he made the move to London, Byrne was almost thirty years of age. I ask him if coming relatively late to acting gave him any advantage over his competitors and he shakes his head emphatically. “Not a bit. Sometimes young actors ask me, ‘what do I need to do to make it?’ I tell them to prepare themselves for long stretches of unemployment and get their heads around the fact that they’ll spend a lot of their time not working.” He was out of work for eighteen months before being accepted into the Royal Court Theatre. “My father was made redundant at the age of 55 and I saw first hand what effect that had on him and his friends. When I was unemployed in London, I started to recognise those same signs in myself. We are all defined by what we do. One of the battles I have had in my life is trying to disengage who I am from what I am, if you follow me. If you’re not acting, can you call yourself an actor?” Doubt started to creep in, in himself and his plan. “That insecurity will always be there, no matter how successful you are. Months and years without the prospect of a job is hard for anyone’s self esteem.”

Unemployment and his new life as an exile in a hostile and unpredictable London had a formative effect on Byrne. “I didn’t know who I was or where I was, really. I had come from this incredibly close-knit society to a city that I didn’t know and didn’t care to know me. Being Irish in England at that time was hard. Going for a job as an actor, you had to be extremely careful about how you presented yourself because as an Irishman, you did not have the advantage. The IRA was in the middle of a bombing campaign and Arthur Scargill and the miners were being baton-charged in the streets. Thatcher was on the television every night, stoking the flames. I had a real sense, sitting in my digs in Wimbledon, that England was falling apart around me.”

His break, when it came, brought him home again. “Out of the blue, I got two auditions and, naturally, both jobs started on the same day. So I had to choose. I went for Excalibur with John Boorman and came back for the shoot in Wicklow. It lashed rain every day but I didn’t give a damn. Afterwards, I went back to London with a real sense of peace in myself. Then, very quickly afterwards, I made Defence of the Realm, which I still think is one of the best films about the relationship between the press and the government. I hadn’t seen it since it came out but I caught it on the television recently and watched for a while”. I ask him if he watches his old films and he shakes his head. “Almost never. With a film I always try to say to myself, ‘when it’s done, it’s done’. I’d hate to be the kind of person who will look at something and say, I should have done this or should have done that. I just let it go. The character doesn’t belong to me anymore, and whatever people make of him when the film is released, I can’t do anything about that.”

He takes a moment to sip his coffee and I ask him if he has, after thirty years, come up with his own theory on what an actor does. “My theory of acting is different to the way that I’ve heard other people talk about it. I believe that my job as an actor is to let the camera into those areas that are private to me. It’s not about make believe, it’s about telling the truth.” Earlier, Byrne had mentioned how his instincts drove him to seek out work as an actor, so I ask him how much of his work is intuitive and how much is craft. “I think it is all instinct. Anybody can learn the craft of it, somebody can teach you the nuts and bolts of acting, or you can read a book. But instinct is what makes the difference between proficiency and excellence. A cabinet maker putting together a sideboard will know what model to follow, but it’s his individual thought processes that makes the difference, knowing where to shave off another millimetre of wood. Instinct as an actor is something you have to learn to recognise and learn to trust. Sometimes it can be wrong but sometimes it can be absolutely right but either way, you have to go with your gut. It’s the only way it can be real. We all feel joy or sadness or regret. Those are the raw materials that an actor works with.”

When Defence of the Realm was released and became a hit, directors started to notice Byrne both for his good looks and his intense presence. He took a string of roles that established him as a natural romantic lead, playing a half-mad Byron in Ken Russell’s florid Gothic and the old flame in Mary Lambert’s sex-and-death drama Siesta, where he met his ex-wife Ellen Barkin. After filming concluded, the couple moved to America and set up home in her native New York. “Brooklyn suited me”, he says, “because it was like a small town that was part of this enormous city and I thought it was a great place to raise my children”. But the marriage wasn’t to last and the couple separated in 1993, after five years together.

By then, Byrne had established himself as a major force in American films playing the tortured gun-for-hire Tom Reagan in the Coen Brother’s extraordinary noir homage Miller’s Crossing. "When that film came along in 1990, it was an incredibly lucky break for me and dictated a lot of what happened in my life after that. I remember arriving at the audition and seeing this tall, nervous girl pacing the floor, smoking cigarettes. I said hello and asked if she was there for the part of Verna. She said ‘yes’ and that her name was Marcia Gay Harden. So the two of us ran our lines outside and went in together and we got the parts. The script was extraordinary. The Coens had each word in its place; each sentence had a rhythm to it. On some films, you can play it loose with the words, but that just doesn’t happen with the Coen brothers. They’d stop a take to say, ‘Gabriel, there’s an ‘and’ there that you missed’.”

Byrne’s Tom Regan is the central figure in a power struggle that sets two rival gangs of mobsters against each other. “Tom was a watcher”, says Byrne, “always aware of what was going on and seeing all the angles. I felt that the audience should always know what he was thinking, or at least have this idea that they knew what he was thinking.” As he’s telling me this, I notice Byrne is wearing the thick silver Claddagh ring, studded with rubies, that Tom Reagan wore in the film. He says he never takes it off.

It was a role in another modern gangster classic that set in motion what Byrne calls his ‘Hollywood Period’. “After The Usual Suspects I made a run of studio movies and a few of those were commercially successful. I did them for a variety of reasons but mainly for money. Hollywood is easy if you’re successful and I was, I suppose, for quite a while. I was there for eight years before I knew it, time that passed very quickly now that I look back on it.” Thinking about Los Angeles sparks something in Byrne and he leans back in his chair, with another sip of coffee. “I enjoyed my life in LA very much. It was a good life, and I’m not just talking about making films. The sun shone every day. I’d pick the oranges off my trees in the garden in the morning. If you did three movies, that’s about six months work in the year. The rest of the time is relaxation. I spent a lot of time travelling. I loved to visit San Francisco or drive up the coast to Big Sur. California is a remarkable place.”

Although he lived the life of a movie star with his house in Beverly Hills and parties with Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, Byrne was never consciously trying to secure the position of a romantic leading man. “When I was starting out, I never thought about my marketability as an actor. I just wanted to work. I had no great career plan and didn’t do films just to get noticed by Hollywood. Most of my film career has been in independent, lower-budget projects and those are the ones that had, I thought, something to say. The problem though, is that those films don’t pay terribly well and I have two kids to put through school.” Somehow, Byrne balanced the Schwarzenegger movies and swooning period dramas with a series of cutting-edge films with directors like Jim Jarmusch, David Cronenberg and Wim Wenders. “Like I say, there was no real plan.”

In 2005, the international success of a low-key film he made in Australia re-established Byrne as one of the best actors working. Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne is a drama about a marriage that disintegrates over a moral issue. It marked the third time he worked with Laura Linney, an actor like himself, who started in the theatre. I make the observation that his character Stewart is the part that is the closest Byrne has come to playing himself on screen, and the actor nods his head. “There’s a pivotal moment in Jindabyne where my character finds the dead body of a young woman. Just before we shot the scene, I took Ray aside and asked him how an action hero would react when he spotted that body?’ And he replied, ‘Well, I don’t know, what do you think?’ I said to him that in my experience, a movie guy would marshal his faculties and calmly sort things out. But what if an ordinary guy, out fishing with his mates for the weekend, encounters the same situation? He loses it. He cannot cope. He is afraid and is scared and makes a mistake. That is much more me.”

“Even after all this time, acting continues to hold my fascination because it allows me to show who I am. If there is one common thing that I have noticed over my career and the choices I have made it’s a certain kind of emotional uncertainty. I’ve come to realise that there is nothing as simple as black and white. I can’t be just heroic or cowardly, happy or sad, because there is conflict in the heart of everything and there is certainly conflict in me and the camera sometimes can pick that up.”

Byrne’s latest success, the HBO series In Treatment, is all about conflict and emotion. He plays a psychotherapist, Dr Paul Weston, who takes weekly sessions with his various patients, seeing them through their crises while creating new ones of his own. Having seen Byrne describe his battle with depression and alcoholism in Pat Collins’ intimate documentary Stories From Home, I wondered if he had ever been in therapy? “No”, he says, “I have not. But doing the show has enlightened me about the process. My feeling about it is this; if you can share who you are with another human being, and acknowledge that contact, your problems lose their power over you. You can put the issue on the table and step away from it and get a new perspective. Or at the very least, you will find that whatever your troubles are, you are not alone in them. There are other people that feel the very same way, or have gone through the very same problem. The human condition, when you boil it down, is that we are all feeling the same way at one time or another.”

A long post, but worth it, I think. Photo courtesy of the Dingle Film Festival.

The Good The Bad The Weird

Korean director Kim Ji-Woon’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird is a hodgepodge Asian spaghetti western (should that be ‘eastern’?) that perfectly recreates a Sergio Leone gun-slinging bonanza on the Mongolian Steppe with uncommon bravado and a delight in complicated action sequences. It’s a hoot.

Opening with a frantic train robbery in the 1930s, the film never pauses for breath. All the horse opera tropes get an airing, but the title tells you all you need to know about the plot. A crack shot with his repeating Winchester, Jung Woo-Sung plays the good, a white-hatted hero and honest bounty hunter. Swathed in black and with a jarringly contemporary haircut Lee Byung-hun is the bad, a deranged bandit fashioned after Lee Van Cleef’s demonic Angel Eyes. Caught between them is an unkempt peasant chancer (Korea’s best known comic actor Song Kang-ho), the weird by subtraction but also the source of much of the film’s ironic humour. All three are searching for a legendary treasure map, an unsubtle McGuffin, which promises untold riches to the individual smart and brave enough to track it down.

A cursory introduction to the main players and a sketchy outline of the plot very soon gives way to a series of all-action sequences, the highlights of which are an elaborate shoot out in an abandoned village that transforms bullet-riddled violence into goofy slapstick and a deliriously over-extended chase across the desert, with the three heroes chasing each other and in turn, being chased by the imperial Japanese army.

It’s around this point that the film struggles to maintain its momentum, the galloping plot becoming more and more convoluted, piling up the chases, duplicities and flashbacks. Ji-Woon gives so many nods to Leone and his legion of followers that he is in danger of straining his neck. But with such beautifully realised stunt-work (all done without the assistance of computer post production) and the glowing talents of a perfectly chosen cast, his rip-snorting film rises above it’s origins as pastiche to become something wholly inventive and painstakingly entertaining that will reward the attention of an investigative audience.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a three hour epic that hinges on a gimmick. It’s a gimmick with noble literary origins, being loosely based on a 1921 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but it is a gimmick nonetheless. The film lives and dies by one’s willingness to accept a central character that is old when he is born and grows younger by the year, until he dies as an infant. Everyone he knows and loves grow older in the usual way, aging slowly as Benjamin goes backwards, passing them on the way down. Embrace that and you will embrace the film.

Attempting to synopsise a story that opens at the end of the First World War and comes to a close during Hurricane Katrina would take all day. The bare bones are these: Benjamin comes into the world in New Orleans during the Armistice to a mother that dies in childbirth and a father (Jason Flemyng) who abandons him, thinking the child, with his wizened face, is a monster. He is taken in by a loving black woman, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who works in an old folk’s home in the city. She raises him as her own, tenderly caring for this bald headed, deeply wrinkled creature, who with his cataracts and cane, fits right in with her other charges.

When he is 13 (and looks about 65), Benjamin meets Daisy, the visiting granddaughter of another resident. Although she will come and go from his life, as Benjamin grows up, and appears younger, Daisy remains the love of his life. Then in the middle section of the film, the now middle-aged Benjamin sets out of his adventures, having been primed for the wider world by an entertaining encounter with a world-travelling African bon vivant (Rampai Mohadi). He takes a job on a boat, captained by a hard-drinking Irishman (Jared Harris) and, in a dream-like sequence has an affair in faraway Murmansk with the sophisticated Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), an ambassador's wife.

Eventually, however, the momentum of the story has Benjamin and Daisy (Cate Blanchett) come together in equilibrium at precisely the right time for both of them, eventually consummating a romance that has been mooted from the opening scenes. The catch, of course, being that their time together is limited by the magic that possesses him; she continues to age as he grows ever younger.

At first glance the film Benjamin Button most recalls is 1994s Forrest Gump, which placed a superficially similar character in the midst of a chronological span (including a war) and attempted to define the era through his adventures. The screenwriter in both instances is Eric Roth, but where Gump trudged blank-faced through the history of television, eating chocolates and playing ping-pong, Button glides through time itself, consistently engaged and aware but without a trace of Forrest’s wet-eyed sentimentality.

Still best known as the director of the serial killer thriller Se7en, the lush, sepia-toned period epic Benjamin Button is a significant chance of pace from director Fincher, but he brings every element of his technical and storytelling skills to the film to present an initially odd, gradually absorbing, eventually devastating treatise on the passage of time. But in some ways, Benjamin Button shares a theme with the director’s last film, Zodiac, which likewise revolved around the slow-drip erosion of time. Where that film tried and failed to solve a puzzle, this one is content to let the mystery lie.

Technically, the process involved in allowing Pitt to play each of the seven ages of a man is astonishing but from beneath the computerised slight-of-hand and prosthetic make-up, the actor gives a remarkable performance, emotionally nimble as a pre-adolescent geriatric and becoming convincingly more distant and weary as the reality of his curse becomes apparent. Opposite him, Blanchett is just as captivating, particularly in the central section when she moves to Paris to become a dancer. To close that section of the story, Fincher demonstrates his theory on time and chance in a bravura sequence that eventually brings Daisy and Benjamin back together, but at a terrible cost to her.

Whatever the director’s skills in realising the impossible on screen, the lasting impressions of his film are emotional rather than mechanical. There are whole sections of Benjamin Button that ran around in my head for days after I saw it. “Nothing lasts”, someone says at a crucial point. Some things do.


Frost/Nixon is, at first sight, a film that lacks compulsion. It’s about a series of interviews between a British television presenter and a disgraced American president that took place over thirty years ago. They talk a lot, so it's dialogue-heavy and light on action. Worse, it’s directed by the deeply unfashionable Ron Howard, who has made a career pumping ham-scented sludge through the Hollywood sausage machine.

Despite all that, Frost/Nixon is brilliant. It’s brilliant because it is superbly acted, vibrantly written and, in the post-Bush era, profoundly evocative. It pits a not-so-smart man against a very smart man in a kind of intellectual Rocky, a battle of wits so tense and prolonged it becomes as exhausting as it is exhilarating.

In one corner is David Frost (Michael Sheen), who, as the film opens, is a media jack of all trades, as comfortable swapping show-business stories on a chat show as he is presenting a tacky quiz. With a jet-set lifestyle, glamorous girlfriend (Rebecca Hall) and a penchant for flash suits, he exudes imperturbable self-confidence, an assurance that drives his desire to do something important. In the other corner is Richard Milhous Nixon (Frank Langella), who is shown in the opening credits resigning the presidency in disgrace following the Watergate scandal in 1974. Reviled in his own country, his reputation in tatters, the scowling, taciturn Nixon is the polar opposite of Frost’s toothy, smiling gadfly.

What brings them together, three years later, at Nixon’s house in California, is the distillation of modern life; celebrity and money. Nixon, goaded by his agent Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones), wants the cash. Frost knows that the interview will make him internationally famous. Both men bring seconds to the bout. Nixon is chaperoned by his assistant Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), a former marine who thinks the velvet-clad Frost is a lightweight. Frost, all too aware of his own weightlessness, brings his producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen) and two American research journalists (played by Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell) who want to “give Nixon the trial he never had”.

The first half of the film is spent building the ring. The second half is the bout itself. At first, Frost cannot land a punch, Nixon is too smart for him, waffling in an avuncular manner about the Chinese. But the fight lasts more than one round. As he has done with Tony Blair (twice), Sheen again takes on a real-life character, imbuing Frost with a ferocious energy and determination even as he flounders in the face of his greatest challenge. Langella is even better. Having already won a Tony for his performance on Broadway, chances are he will repeat the trick at the Oscars next month.

It is the faintly delirious quality of the two central performances that make this film so involving and so memorable. These are actors at the top of their game, all Ron Howard has to do is make sure the lights are on and the camera is in focus. This, luckily, is within his capabilities and even better, he resists the temptation to add anything resembling a bell or a whistle to Peter Morgan’s taut, tense script, adapted from his own stage play. This is the best film of Howard’s career, a million miles away from the po-faced shenanigans of The Da Vinci Code or the cod psychologies of A Beautiful Mind. Morgan writes beautiful dialogue but more than that, as he showed with The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, he has a special talent for exploring what he calls in the press notes “the twilight between historical fact and fiction”.

Revolutionary Road

Titanic’s doomed lovers Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet reunite as unhappily married couple in 1950s America in Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road, adapted by screenwriter Justin Haythe from Richard Yates’ terse novel about a relationship that crumbles under the weight of arguments, jealousies and recriminations.

DiCaprio plays Frank Wheeler, an unfulfilled sales man for an adding-machine company in Manhattan, spending his days stuck behind a desk in a cubicle. He is married to Winslet’s April, the mother of his two young girls, who has given up her dreams of an acting career and settled down in deepest suburbia to keep house and raise the kids. Although they appear to be living the dream of 1955 American life, they are deeply unhappy, with their lot in life and, more pertinently, with each other.

The first hint of irony in the story arises from simple fact that this couple are young and beautiful. In the booming post-war America, they have been fed the lie that whatever they desire in life can be made real. They have been raised in optimism; both husband and wife sharing the belief that they are destined to lead remarkable lives. The truth is, they are resolutely ordinary and it is killing them. Then the increasingly despondent April comes up with a life-changing plan. They will sell their home and move to Paris, where she will find a job as a bi-lingual secretary and Frank can take the time to “find himself”. From the first moment the idea is mooted, it seems like a scatterbrained scheme, but they hang onto it for dear life. The alternative, the same old daily grind, drinks with the neighbours, the cramped commute to the city, squeezing oranges for breakfast, is unthinkable.

As a portrait of a bad match and the suffocating nature of ordinary life, Revolutionary Road is astringent and determinedly wretched. And that, in part, is the problem. We see these people at their worst but we rarely see the good in them that gives the constant bickering and recrimination it’s tragic poignancy. There is angst, as much as any one film can contain, but none of the contrasting joy that would cause the pain to bite. In the film's most effective scenes, local estate agent Mrs Givings (Kathy Bates) visits the Wheelers with her long-suffering husband (Richard Easton) and their son John (Michael Shannon). Once a promising mathematician, John has suffered a debilitating mental breakdown that has robbed him of his talent with numbers and blunted his social graces. While the rest of the characters sit around pretending to be happy, John tells them what he really thinks, acting as a blistering one-man Greek Chorus in stripping away the artifices and delusions to get to the nub of truth. By the time he has finished, their dreams lie in tatters on the shag pile carpet.

In his four films to date, director Sam Mendes (Winslet’s real-life husband) has struggled to tell a story that connects with any significant emotional authority. Frank and April may be well played but as characters, they remain cramped bundles of indicators; beautifully photographed, perfectly costumed and placed in evocative settings but lacking the spark that would give them life. Having already catalogued the same suburban dissatisfaction in his black comedy American Beauty, it is even more disappointing that the director’s second journey along the same route is only occasionally inspired.

Revolutionary Road is a dispassionate film, detached and unfeeling. Rather than show us the death throes of the American dream, Mendes presents us with the autopsy report, having already buried the victims. His first scene brings us to a lively be-bop dance party, where the elegant April makes heavy-lidded eyes at the dashing Frank. The very next scene drags us forward in time to a violent argument on the side of a road where she cowers before his clenched fist. From that point on, the remainder of the story is a foregone conclusion, hermetically sealed. It is still worth looking at, but the experience is little more than remote observation. Like a photograph of a diamond, the sparkle is there, but you cannot feel the weight.