Sunday 20 February 2011

The King’s speech, Black Swan and Biutiful

I have only managed to see three new films at the cinema so far this year.  But what great films they were.  Each very, very different from the others.  First up was The King’s Speech, directed by Tom Hooper.  This is a mainly UK production and tells the true story of King George VI’s struggle to overcome his stammer.  As the head of the then British Empire, a key part of the role of the Monarch was to make authoritative and if possible inspiring speeches to his subjects.   The background to this personal struggle is George’s unexpected accession to the throne following the abdication of his elder brother, Edward V111 - he of the Wallis Simpson scandal.  All this intrigue and politicking is well covered in the film.
However the heart of the film is the personal transformation of George himself.  He achieves this through the rather unconventional methods of an Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue.  These are the most intense and sometimes hilarious scenes in the film.  The King does of course succeed in overcoming his stammer, just in time to make a very moving speech justifying Britain’s entry into the Second World War.
This is a very heartwarming and uplifting film, well directed with a lovely feel for the period.  It also has some trully outstanding performances.   Colin Firth has rightly been offered the highest accolades for his performance as George.  A commanding performance indeed.  However all the cast is very impressive.  Helena Bonham Carter puts in a restrained yet almost flirtatious performance as George’s supportive wife.  While Geoffrey Rush is excellent as the exuberant and determined therapist.  
Second up was Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky.   This US film takes the famous ballet Swan Lake as the background for a taut and visually stunning psychological roller coaster of a ride.   The basic story is simple enough - an aspiring ballerina is chosen to play the lead role in Swan Lake as her first major role.   However the ballerina in question, Nina Sayers - a very impressive Natalie Portman - is no ordinary girl.   She has a love hate relationship with her mother - the equally impressive Barbara Hershey.  Her mother alternately encourages and bullies her daughter, while all the tine keeping her under close surveillance, especially at home where she is surrounded by little girls’ dolls.  Nina is the classic young woman who has never been allowed to grow up.
Now she has suddenly to play the star role in the world’s most famous ballet.  A role which has two contrasting parts.  She has to play not just the pure, virginal White Swan, but also the sexually alluring, femme fatale role of the Black Swan.  And as the title of the film suggests, it is the Black Swan who exerts the most powerful pull.  It all of course proves too much for Nina.  Torn by the incessant demands from the ballet director, plagued by fears of jealousy towards a rival ballerina and driven by her mother, Nina spectacularly descends into a black hell full of gothic horror.
The film is one of almost constant movement, with ballet sequences mirroring Nina’s inner turmoil.  The music, based on Tchaikovsky’s score, is simply wonderful, and perfect for the climactic descent into hell.  The costumes are bright and vivid and the whole film is a luscious feast of stunning colour.  The performances are very good as well.  Natalie Portman in particular puts in a terrific performance.  She is equally convincing as the innocent, sexually repressed young girl and the lustful, sexually aggressive woman.  She is also a pretty good ballet dancer.  Barbara Hershey also deserves special mention as the evil mother, while Vincent Cassel is a suitably aloof and manipulative director.  A feature of the film is the many close up shots of the actors’ faces.  Usually somewhat contorted, they add to the darkness of the film and the overall sense that something is not right in the state of this ballet company.  Great film though.
The third film I have seen on the big screen was Biutiful, a Mexican, Spanish production, directed by Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu.  Despite its title, which is how the english word beautiful would be written in spanish, there is very little of beauty in this film.  Other than the the beauty of the soul, perhaps.  At least that of the main character, Uxbal, played with enormous sensitivity by the great Javier Bardem.  Shot on location mainly in the outskirts of Barcelona, this is the sad and moving tale of the many tragic losers in today’s world of superficial glitter and excess.
As the film starts Uxbal is trying hard and just about successfully to keep the various strands of his life together.  HIs wife, a glorious over the top performance by Maricel Alvarez, is a drug addict who also suffers from bi-polar disorder.  At present he is separated from her and somehow manages to bring up his two children on his own.  They live in a ramshackle, untidy and not too salubrious flat somewhere in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of Barcelona.  Uxbal makes a living, of sorts, by acting as a kind of intermediary between unscrupulous employers who need cheap illegal immigrants to make any kind of profit and the immigrants themselves.  He also keeps the local police sweet with a few bribes here and there.  Though Uxbal himself does not seem to take drugs, most of those around do.  In this film we are taken right into the beating heart of the rotten underbelly of our modern world.  And not in some third world country, but in the one of the great modern cities of the western world.
Shortly after the film opens, things begin to go downhill for Uxbal and also for the migrant workers.  Inexorably downhill, much like in a Greek tragedy.   It is as if there is some terrible avenging Angel on the track of Uxbal, who will bring down anyone who stands in his way.  This is a pretty depressing film.  There is not a lot of joy in this world.  Lots of people, most of the people in fact, work very hard for next to nothing and still have to endure even more horrible suffering.  There are of course some honourable and caring people out there.  Liwei the Chinese girl who helps look after Uxbal’s children and Ige, the Senegalese mother who ends up caring for Uxbal’s children.  Both of course illegal migrants.
And then of course there is Uxbal himself.  A flawed individual who is nevertheless full of the sense of right and wrong and the need to get things right.  It soon becomes clear that he is suffering from some incurable disease, probably cancer, and he is determined to sort out as many things as he can before he finally dies.  Both for his own children and the migrant workers for whom he feels a deep sense of responsibility.  This is a towering performance from Bardem, who is in just about every shot in the film.  From wandering about, head down through the streets of dark and dirty grey looking Barcelona, to tenderly comforting his daughter, Bardem dominates the film, even more so than Colin Firth or Natalie Portman do in their films.   This is a Barcelona that few people will have seen before, really the adjacent towns of Badalona and Santa Coloma.  But it is a real world full of real people, some of whom do lead tragic lives.
Three very different, but equally great films.  Let’s hope that there are a few more treasures out there awaiting to be seen.

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