Breath

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Review by © Jane Freebury

Surfing makes for elegant and beautiful spectator sport, as those of us who stick to land know only too well.

Ever since I lived on the coast south of Sydney I have thought that surfing was out of this world but that it needed patient dedication and a kind of insanity to pursue. Day in, day out, the surfers were there, floating in a heaving expanse of blue or grey as they waited for the big one.

Communicating the visceral experience of surfing is one of Breath’s triumphs, pitching us into deep water to show what the struggle to survive in another world can feel like. Early scenes are in still water, with Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence) exploring a river, but soon transition to the ocean beaches in the Great Southern region of Australia.

Water cinematography by Rick Rifici brings the experience home with beautiful and enthralling vision, above and below the surface.

In the remote corner of the continent where they are growing up, there’s not much for these two teenage friends to do. They can go to the beach, ride around on their battered bikes, or they get up to no good spooking truck drivers on the highway.

On a trip to the coast they encounter a hardcore surfer, Sando (Simon Baker, who is also director), who gives them rides to and from the beach in his – yes, you guessed it – Kombi van. He and his wife, Eva (Elizabeth Debicki) can help out by letting them leave their gear at his house. It saves them the trouble of cycling to the water with their heavy fibreglass boards under one arm while negotiating the road with the other.

It turns out that Sando, a laconic, unfettered 70s man, has a bit of history. His reputation in the surfing world is on the record on old magazine covers, catching waves from Mexico to Indonesia. If he wasn’t already a surfer to look up to, he certainly is now, though hardly the best role model.

Sando opens a window to a world that neither of the boys knew existed. The treacherous offshore breaks, the remote beach patrolled by a great white shark, and the wide world beckoning from across the sea. There is the strange world of adults, their losses and coping mechanisms and their various addictions.

When Sando and Loonie head overseas together on a surfing holiday, the void throws Pikelet into a relationship with Eva who limps from an injury that has put an end to her career as an extreme ski jumper. It opens a window on yet another space, dark and dangerous, and is another occasion when boundaries are crossed. It’s not just the sex.

This is not the first occasion that Simon Baker has directed. He has drawn naturalistic performances from his two untested leads, and he makes a very convincing Sando. Winton has also invested much of himself invested in this journey.

I hesitate to describe Breath as a coming-of-age film, but there is no getting away from its place in this popular local genre. However, it is in very good company, and among the best. Appearances and labels can be deceptive, anyway.

A film about surfing and surfer culture may not appear to speak to people who grew up in the inner city, or who have only lived on the land, or who think of the 1970s as a kind of dark ages.

There is nothing routine about this visually superb treatment of the subject that explores the liminal moment when young people choose their direction. And, it is of course based on the novel of Tim Winton, who also worked with Baker and Gerard Lee (Top of the Lake, Sweetie) on the screenplay.

Breath may not touch everyone, but it would be a pity if that were so. It is about so much more than blokes on boards.

Rated M, 115 minutes

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

Gurrumul

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Reviewed by © Jane Freebury

A few days before Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu passed away last year at the age of 46, he agreed to the release of this tribute to his life and work. It now arrives on screen just the way it was when last seen by the musician in July.

It is a beautiful documentary about a remarkable Indigenous man who sang, in his own language, songs that spoke to people the world over. Blind from birth, he had a gift for the universality of music, with a voice that seemed to touch people where they live.

His aunt, Susan Dhangal Gurruwiwi, who provides occasional insights over the course of the film, has observed that Gurrumul moved us deeply, often to tears, by simply showing us who he was.

Not long after Gurrumul’s death, his clan elders in East Arnhem Land also agreed to approve the film’s release. Yolngu lore forbids the name, image and voice of the deceased to remain in the public domain, so to be viewed it was an imperative to have the sign-off from the custodians of culture.

On this occasion, an important exception was made to Yolngu lore, and we are the lucky beneficiaries.

Sensitively paced and with an occasional fade out – a reminder of Gurrumul’s sightless world – this documentary is both subtle and intense.

Prior to taking on the project, director Paul Damien Williams had been working in remote Indigenous communities in the north of Australia for 30 years. It is impossible to imagine that such an organic and empathetic film could have been the result of any fly-in, fly-out arrangement.

There is priceless footage of the musician backstage while on tour overseas, either clowning around with people he felt close to, revealing his wit and mischievous sense of humour, or holding back during an interview that made him uncomfortable.

A trove of intimate moments from Gurrumul’s childhood and youth arrived one day during production, in a box of reels of Super 8 mm and Super 16 mm. The director was able to weave scenes from home movies into the tapestry of Gurrumul’s life as well.

And the filmmakers were permitted to shoot during the funerals of Gurrumul’s parents, who each died while production was underway.

Before his solo career, Gurrumul was a member of the exuberant Top End band Yothu Yindi, when a young double bassist out of Melbourne, Michael Hohnen, noticed the ‘quiet genius’ playing in the background. Hohnen would become Gurrumul’s musical collaborator. With Mark Grose, he subsequently formed the Skinnyfish Music record label in Darwin to work in partnership with Indigenous communities, help preserve their music and take it to the outside world.

Throughout the film there are many scenes of Hohnen and Gurrumul together and it is touching to see how close the bond had become between the two of them over the years. Hohnen and Gurrumul were considered wawa, the Gumatj word for brother.

Despite his beautiful, soaring voice, and mastery of keyboards, drums, didgeridoo and guitar, Gurrumul did not at first see the point in pursuing his own career. Family and community and maintaining culture at home among the Galiwin’ku community on Elcho Island were all that mattered, but eventually, he recognised the value of sharing his Yolngu culture and taking it to the world.

While Gurrumul’s voice was soaring, transcendent and unique, he was also his own man, someone who on occasion declined to meet celebrity expectations, the singing sensation who didn’t show up for his big American tour. He went home instead, to his island paradise home to attend his nephew’s initiation.

A left-hander who played a right-handed guitar upside down, a performer on the international stage who did a duet for French television but had little idea who his singing partner was. It was Sting.

It is difficult to imagine that a documentary like this could have been made about Gurrumul without deep understanding and mutual trust. It stands as a fine tribute to the man and his music, and is testament to the blackfella and balanda (whitefella) relationships that have made it happen.

Rated PG, 97 minutes

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

The Party

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Review by © Jane Freebury

The Party brings a bunch of people together in the comfortable middle-class environs of London, at the home of Janet, Kristin Scott Thomas in the role, and her husband Bill, a more than usually lugubrious Timothy Spall. Everyone has a secret to divulge.

Each character represents a segment of the influential elite. There’s someone from financial services, there’s a politician, there are two academics, and there’s a wellness coach and on-trend chef.

Bill has a droll routine as he puts records on the turntable, then announces that he has a terminal illness. That is bad enough, but hey, there is more in store yet for Janet.

The posh environs in London today may be more polite than Hornsby, Sydney, in the late 1960s when the notorious election night classic, Don’s Party, is set. But it isn’t the restraint that makes The Party fall short. It simply doesn’t gel.

Although not about to celebrate a change of government, it still looks ahead to the prospect of political change. Sometime down the track when the newly created shadow minister for health, (Scott Thomas), and her colleagues are voted into government.

Some cross-cutting between scenes looks great in the trailer, but deft promotional editing has elided the gaps and awkward pauses. The party goers, supposed to get really mad at each other, barely connect. Instead, they lounge around or stand stiffly stating their positions, firing their lines off into the undergrowth.

Someone gets slapped, another brandishes a gun, but it doesn’t for engagement make, and prospects for good argument turn in a damp squib. Talk about atomised.

There is every reason why the ‘polite party to skewer the middle classes’ formula has held up well over time, but hard as the actors try, it doesn’t work here. Given too little to do, they are defeated at every turn, even the mouthy Patricia Clarkson character, Janet’s old friend April. Cillian Murphy as a disturbed banker, Emily Mortimer as a pregnant chef in a same-sex marriage, and Bruno Ganz spouting new age banalities fare no better.

Mercifully short at 71 minutes, and filmed in artful black and white, The Party could have been a deliciously cynical demolition job on the types it portrays but Bill as DJ produces one of its few pleasures—a great playlist includes tracks from Bo Diddley and John Coltrane.

Writer-director Sally Potter has had a knack for surprising us. She teamed up with Tilda Swinton to wow us all with time travel and gender switching in Orlando in the early 1990s, then followed up with a romantic Tango Lesson in which she herself starred as student of the dance.

The Party, on the other hand, needed more work, not by the actors on set but by the writer before they got the call. It seems dashed off, an addendum to the 2015 British election during which it was written, and why it earned four stars in so many reviews is a mystery to me.

It’s clear what Potter had in mind, but when top actors can’t make it work, our gaze shifts to the filmmaker.

MA15+, 71 minutes

2 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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Review by © Jane Freebury

As the filmmaker behind every second person’s favourite comedy, Four Weddings and a Funeral, the director Mike Newell has had a bit to live up to since 1994. This, his latest film, is in similar vein to that modern classic with a trans-Atlantic romance, an ill-matched couple, and a cosy sense of Englishness.

Initially, I hadn’t found the sound of it enticing, but when it began I was quickly won round by the lead character, the medley of endearing personalities, the old-fashioned charm, and the production polish. And once we move from London in the aftermath of WWII to the stone cottages and plunging cliffs of the Channel Islands, it looks beautiful too—with Devon and Cornwall standing in for Guernsey.

For those who have not read the book (of the same title), I can report that it involves a spirited young woman who earns an excellent living from her writing. No food stamps for Juliet (Lily James). She finds some of the fashions irresistible – who wouldn’t? – and she makes enough to afford a fine apartment too, but she rents a modest room in a boarding house instead. At the moment it is a sea of red roses sent by her boyfriend, a smooth American, Mark (Glen Powell).

Otherwise, she is alone, having lost her parents during the war, and tends  to follow her heart and instincts, rather than those of her business-oriented friend and publisher, Sidney (Matthew Goode). She is on the point of dropping the silly nom de plume, Izzy Bickerstaff, with which she became famous, and doing something serious.

James and a brace of the actors besides her have appeared in television on Downton Abbey, not everyone’s cup of tea. If this is a selling point it is lost on me and maybe others, but the performances (from Penelope Wilton and Jessica Brown Findlay, etc) are spot on.

As is Dutch actor Michiel Huisman – who others may know through TV’s astonishing Game of Thrones – the pig farmer, Dawsey, who writes to Juliet asking for help finding titles for his book club. It prompts her to visit.

Juliet’s welcome on Guernsey is uneven. The postmaster’s grandson is pleased to see her, but others—especially her landlady and the matriarch of the bookclub, Amelia (Wilton)—border on rudeness, and cannot bring themselves to welcome this stranger, however honourable her motives, into the insular community.

Such accomplished escapism with characters to care about has never hurt anyone

In flashbacks early on, the film explains how it came by its incongruous title, and asks for our indulgence. The idea of a bookclub apparently came in a moment of desperation when a group of islanders were surprised by a Nazi patrol while making food deliveries during curfew.

The Nazis occupied the Channel Islands, a British protectorate, from 1940-45, or for most of the war. To explain themselves, on the spot, the miscreants invent the idea of a bookclub and name it after the spud pie one of their number is carrying. Surely it wasn’t necessary to burden the film with it too.

And yet, despite this handicap and some risky nostalgia for an idealised past, Newell’s film has a winning combination of easy charm, lively characters and romance to more than make up for it.

A subplot involving a young German doctor stationed on Guernsey underlines the generosity and humanity of this sweet tale. It may be a confection, but a slice of such accomplished escapism with characters to care about has never hurt anyone.

3.5 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

The Death of Stalin

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Review by © Jane Freebury

Rated MA15+, 1 hour 47 minutes

4.5 Stars

With not much to do one evening, the staff at Radio Moscow only have to adjust the audio settings and enjoy a Mozart concerto while watching the beautiful pianist (Olga Kurylenko).

Then the phone rings. It’s Chairman Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), calling to say his guard are on their way to pick up a recording of the live performance that is on air. Recording, what recording?

Knowing Stalin the way they do, it’s a mad scramble to set things right. The audience is stopped from leaving, and passers-by are press-ganged to fill in for those who did.

The musicians take their places again, but who will replace the conductor, who happened to knock himself out when he tripped over a fire bucket? All the other good conductors are in the gulag or otherwise disappeared.

One is found, eventually. He arrives in pyjamas and dressing gown, convinced he has been rounded up to be shot like numerous neighbours in his apartment building who, as it happened, were being carted off when he answered a knock at the door.

For the unprepared, this farcical political satire based on historical fact about one of the 20th century’s most barbarous regimes, could be a queasy cocktail. Unless you are prepared to go along with a feature length lampoon of a preposterous, vicious clique that once ran the USSR. The Death of Stalin is set in 1953.

Stalin receives his newly pressed recording, but tucked inside the sleeve is an unwelcome surprise which gives him such a turn that he has a stroke. This isn’t discovered until the next morning, the guards at his door too cowed to investigate the thump they heard as he hit the floor. The position of Russian leader is up for grabs.

As the great man lies prone, dead or dying, it’s over to the inner circle to try to work out succession. Seems there’s no plan.

It could be the dim, lugubrious party deputy, Gyorgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Moscow party head, a toey Nikita Krushchev (Steve Buscemi, complete with New York accent), head of the secret police, Lavrentiy Beria (Shakespearian actor Simon Russell Beale) – or foreign secretary, Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), though he has only just been added to a list to be eliminated.

Now they can emerge from their sycophantic obedience and show their true colours. When Stalin finally dies, it’s game on.

Not one of these acclaimed actors has been required to speak with a Russian accent, though each of them surely could without any effort. It helps to set the tone for this wonderful absurdist political farce from Scottish director and co-writer, Armando Iannucci (In the Loop).

The humour owes much to the great British comedic tradition, and yet the original source material is French. The graphic comic book of the same name on which it is based, is due for release in English.

Two of Stalin’s progeny, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend), also try to take charge of the situation to hilarious effect, but too little of the old man has rubbed off for either of them to have any impact.

The medals strung across the chest of field marshal Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), on the other hand, really do mean something, and he ensures that a baleful chapter in Russian history is put to an end.

This is brilliant, wicked, eviscerating entertainment—a comedy of terrors, indeed.  In throwing a spotlight on the perversity and cruelty of Stalin’s regime, Iannucci shows no restraint as he lampoons each of his targets mercilessly.

A recent ban on this film in Russia is a delicious footnote. On our current understanding of the skills on hand in that country, we trust that The Death of Stalin may still be doing the rounds, circulating as an illegal file.

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

Mary Magdalene

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Review by © Jane Freebury

She was canonised a saint centuries ago, but it seems that the in-fighting among Christians over Mary Magdalene, the only female disciple, has continued. Who was she? A fallen woman or a steadfast virgin?

The new film from Garth Davis, who directed Lion with such restraint and empathy, wants to set the record straight about the kind of gal she really was. It’s admirable, though I’m not sure I understand why any ongoing controversy should be resolved. She could have been one of life’s contradictions, for all we know.

The reputation of Mary Magdalene may not be sorted anytime soon, but I do like the way this film explores the woman she might have been. What her life was like before Jesus came along, what she wanted for herself and why she left her family behind.

The other thing I found intriguing – as a non-religious person interested in ideas – was the depiction of how a religion, any religion, might begin. Slowly, hesitantly, as a form of social resistance perhaps like any movement.

Life is harsh in 33 BC. Mary helps out when a woman gives birth, and she and her sisters haul in fishing nets heavy with the day’s catch.

However, an unusual lack of filial duty marks her out as a rebel who will not follow the path that her father and brothers have determined for her. She refuses to marry and chooses instead to follow a man called Jesus who is in the area. As the man of the people with a low-key but revolutionary message, Joaquin Phoenix is surprisingly plausible.

More interesting is the take on Judas Iscariot, audaciously depicted as personable and attractive, and just another impatient young man who wants Jesus to get on with the revolution

Davis’ film is set in the beautiful, stark, bare bones of southern Italy. The Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser, who worked so impressively on films like Bright Star and Zero Dark Thirty, was behind the camera. The otherworldly score is the work of the (late) Icelandic composer, Johan Johannsson and the cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir.

The film’s attention to period detail also helps make for an immersive experience. It takes you back in time to the shores of the Sea of Galilee and the city of Jerusalem, and the lives of ordinary people under the Romans. It offers its own kind of social realism.

Unfortunately the film lets itself down in trying to establish why Mary joins the disciples following Jesus. We get instead a number of vague, dreamy sequences of her descending into the blue depths as though her baptism was a rehearsal for oblivion.

And the conversations that she has with Jesus aren’t particularly persuasive support for her actions either. She could be simply be seen as a girl who didn’t like the man her family had chosen for her to marry. There could have been so much more to this.

Much more interesting is the film’s take on the figure of Judas Iscariot, who is audaciously depicted as personable and attractive, and just another impatient young man who wants Jesus to get on with the revolution. The French actor of Algerian descent, Tahar Rahim, with an open, smiling face incapable of dissimilitude, shapes a character who is bound for disappointment when the kind of revolution Jesus has in mind becomes clear.

Sometimes trance-like, cultish and surely not what the filmmakers intended

Rahim, by the way, emerged on the scene of the international film industry as a petty criminal caught up in inmate politics in prison in A Prophet, a powerful film directed by Jacques Audiard.

The black English actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, is also memorable at the disciple Peter. A small part.

After two hours of screen time, there is not enough to know about Mary Magdalene. The alabaster serenity of Rooney Mara as the main character reveals so little of her motivations that watching her story unfold is sometimes like taking part in a waking dream. Sometimes trance-like, cultish and surely not what the filmmakers intended.

Actually, screenwriters Helena Edmundson and Philippa Goslet, have, while undertaking to write one story, written another. Mary Magdalene isn’t especially about its stated subject, who is still just the witness, but about how a religion or a movement might be born.

Despite wanting to reveal more of the true nature of Mary Magdalene, the film offers a low-key study of Christianity in its early days, and why Jesus was eliminated as a dissident.

From the paintings of the masters like Rubens and El Greco to the blockbusters based on the writing of novelist Dan Brown, it is clear Magdalene has intrigued artists and writers for centuries. Surely the curiosity over her true nature will continue. She was a woman in a man’s world, after all.

Rated M, 2 hours

3 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

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Review by © Jane Freebury

One of the original blonde bombshells of the golden years of Hollywood, Gloria Grahame, played the bad girl until the very end, it seems.  There were four husbands, there were scandals – including the rumour that she had been discovered in bed with a young stepson – and there was a lot of plastic surgery.

So with hindsight it is easy to imagine that her persona in films like The Bad and the Beautiful and The Big Heat, and the real Gloria were one and the same person.

Maybe so. It’s more or less the take that this film has on the screen siren, which is, after all, adapted from a memoir by a young lover, Peter Turner, an aspiring actor.

He could only see the good, and stood by her to the end. The film covers the few short years of their time together, their romance told in flashback from the present when Grahame is at work on stage in England, but gravely ill.

The unlikely couple crossed paths at a boarding house in Primrose Hill, London. Gloria, played by the wonderful Annette Bening, invites Peter into her room to help her practice a dance routine.

It is the first time in a long time that Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) has had an opportunity to show his dance moves, and Bening reveals she is no slouch on the dance floor either. It was the late 1970s, the era of disco and Saturday Night Fever.

It is a tribute to both actors that the romance between these two is so convincing. It is always a pleasure to spend time with Bening on screen, and this new lead role for Bell is a revelation. His ability to portray emotion with tenderness and conviction does, in my view, eclipse her here.

Still, Bening is the perfect choice for the role of the ageing film star who never stopped being the coquette and femme fatale. Just on the cusp of 60 years, she looks great and has a warm and sunny charisma to match. So refreshing to see an ageing female star who isn’t some kind of monster, like Gloria Swanson was in Sunset Boulevard or Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Just before Grahame died at 57 years, from either peritonitis or a relapse of breast cancer, she was a guest at Turner’s family home, a modest terrace house in Liverpool. When she collapsed on stage, her former lover rushed to the rescue and prevailed on the basic decency and kindness of his parents to help him look after her.

The dependable, sparky Julie Walters is lovely as Peter’s mother, a sensible, kind woman who may well have been caring for a woman around the same age as herself. The Turner family’s bemused and down-to-earth attitude to the star is touching.

So, it is for us to wonder where old film stars do go to when they want to drop out of the public eye. The back streets of Liverpool might be as good a choice as any.

There is something to admire about Grahame as she is portrayed here. Her resilience, her upbeat nature, her embrace of risk, flouting convention with her young lover, though it isn’t hard to imagine some of these admirable traits also contributed to her fall from grace.

It is hard to ignore the fact that she was found in bed with her 13-year-old stepson, the son of Nicholas Ray, the director. A decade or so later, the pair did marry, have two children, and it was Grahame’s longest lasting marriage too. The same can be said of Woody Allen, but it doesn’t make the behaviour any more excusable.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool just glances across the surfaces of Grahame’s personality with its contradictions and vulnerabilities.

Retreating behind dark glasses isn’t enough. There could have been more to this sweet film if it had taken a peak into the dark places of one of the screen’s first ladies of film noir.

Rated M, 1 hour 45 minutes

3 Stars

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

The Square

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Review by © Jane Freebury

As he is portrayed by the Danish actor, Claes Bang, Christian is assured, sensitive and genial. He is the head curator at a contemporary art museum in Stockholm, with the jaunty name X-Royal Museum, and he is also a caring father to the two little daughters he sees on time-share and is an engaged global citizen who drives a Tesla.

Not the kind of man likely to land himself in deep trouble.

One day out and about in the city on foot, however, he is drawn into helping a young woman screaming for help. A cry for ‘help’ is one of the film’s central motifs. It is scattered throughout in different situations, some of which would work extremely well in a thriller by Hitchcock. The upshot is that he is pickpocketed during this incident and comes away from his charitable act minus mobile phone and wallet.

With location finder activated, he and his assistant at work, Michael (Christopher Laesso, another Danish actor in this European coproduction), hatch a devious plan to prompt the thief to return the stolen goods. The phone signal is blinking from an inner city high-rise that looks like social housing. The pair drive to the apartment block with leaflets to post in every letterbox, but it’s the kind of place Christian would never enter, and some very funny scenes ensue.

Miraculously, the plan works and the goods are returned, in a drop off at the local 7 Eleven. It puts Christian in even closer touch with one of numerous people begging on the street. But leafleting an entire apartment block of tenants with the threat of public exposure, draws ire from an unexpected quarter.

Work is giving him grief, too. The museum’s latest acquisition is ‘The Square’, an installation created from cobblestones dug up from the museum courtyard and self-consciously re-laid within a 4 x 4 metre LED square, a designated ‘sanctuary of trust and caring’. The millennial marketing team hired to help launch this bland artwork have an arsenal of shocking ideas that Christian has to keep pouring cold water on, until one of these concepts escapes unapproved while he is distracted, and it goes viral.

American actress du jour, Elisabeth Moss (Top of the Lake, The Handmaid’s Tale and more), has a small but pithy role in The Square as a journalist. The naïveté she suggests at the start in a sharp, amusing interview asking Christian to explain – better still, to decipher – the jargon in museum marketing material, quickly falls away to reveal an astute and practised player. Why she keeps a pet chimpanzee in her apartment is still a mystery to me, but I take it as a given.

Poor Christian. He has so much going for him it is quite impossible to feel sorry for him. What brings him a world of trouble has more to do with his gender, class and ethnicity than with faults of his own.

In this sharp and savvy social satire from writer-director Ruben Östlund, Christian’s peaceful, refined and ordered world descends into chaos, for minor errors of judgement, none of them hanging offences. The downwards spiral is replete with telling scenes of embarrassment but the tone is almost always light and the treatment kept brisk.

If anything, there are too many strands for drawing it all together and there is a bit of slump at the end.

It is a mark of Ostlund’s considerable skill, however, that the tense scenes in The Square would work equally well in a thriller, including a  quite terrifying scene of performance art that runs amok at a sedate dinner.

The Square has many attributes. Witty, smart, original, and delivered with airy panache – just for starters.

Rated MA15+, 2 hours 31 minutes

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

Molly’s Game

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Review © Jane Freebury

The bluff and counter-bluff of a poker game is no guarantee of a visually appealing and viscerally engaging experience, even if there’s something tangible at stake like a callow celeb losing a mountain of money. But if we’re watching the young entrepreneur who orchestrates these illegal events, then we’re talking.

Molly’s Game is an adaptation of a book by a young woman, Molly Bloom, who used to run clandestine poker games for wealthy and celebrity clients in Los Angeles and New York, high rollers with ten grand to spare for starters. Aaron Sorkin has adapted it for the screen.

The celebrated television and screenwriter behind The West Wing and The Social Network is in charge here as both writer and director. He is one of the best writers in the business, so who knows where this will project go.

The biggest surprise comes right at the action-packed start, revealing the trajectory that Molly (Jessica Chastain) was on before she became a poker entrepreneur. Before she left home in Colorado, Molly was a champion skier, Olympic material, but was badly injured in a jump on the slopes that put an end to her ambition, and that of her dad.

In a film that offers sparing insight into its main character, we see at least where the drive and ambition came from: her relationship with a terse, exacting, and emotionally withholding father. Larry Bloom, a psychology college professor, is played by Kevin Costner with some conviction. Although her mother was the skiing and snowboard instructor, she barely gets a look in.

After the accident and before taking up her place at law school, Molly leaves home. Declaring that she wants to experience more sunshine while she’s young, she heads for California.

While working as a cocktail waitress, she starts setting up poker games for her boss. Then she sets up her own, taking clients with her. Her great assets in this line of work, are not the obvious ones that she plays to – with plunging necklines, tight skirts and kohl eyeliner – but her quick intelligence and business acumen. Learning on the job, she googles poker terms and gamblers’ preferred mood music, and has soon worked out exactly how to do it all herself.

These developments would be, however, a lot more entertaining if Molly wasn’t in our ear telling us what she was doing all the while. Pervasive voiceover is one of the film’s problems.

Sorkin is obviously confident of his writing, and with very good reason. But in a medium more inclined to show than tell, the use of voiceover is excessive, even though Chastain is terrific in her role, delivering her lines brilliantly at breakneck speed.

What do we know about Molly? Her personal relationships barely develop, even with the personable lawyer, Idris Elba’s Charlie Jaffey, she approaches after the FBI catches up with her. He eventually agrees to handle her case and the ensuing relationship draws out some of the traits that evade us, but the veneer is barely lifted.

Sorkin could have opted for a light-headed crime caper but he seems more intent on extracting a serious point. But what point, exactly?

Molly is clearly a gutsy heroine, but the suggestion that she is in some way a feminist crusader seems misplaced. Sorkin’s main character might have prospered better in another field to stake this claim.

In her book, the real Molly Bloom had amazing opportunities to observe some very powerful men, clients the film declines to name. A few more are named in her book, but would this have made a difference to the film? It’s unlikely.

The problem is for me, that as it stands, this story of a questing young woman, a prime mover in a man’s world, lacks insight.

Molly is sharp and entertaining company but eventually there is too little depth to her and too much emphasis on the game—the game of life, perhaps?—and how it’s played to sustain the lengthy running time.

Perhaps one of Larry Bloom’s psychology colleagues could have been drawn in to help out.

Rated M, 2 hours 20 minutes

3.5 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7