Tag Archives: Best Picture

The Hurt Locker

WFTB Score: 16/20

The plot: The tragic death of a bomb disposal expert in Iraq brings a new face to Bravo Company. However, unlike his predecessor, Sgt James walks relentlessly towards grave danger, much to the dismay of colleagues Sanborn and Eldridge who rather fancy surviving their tour of duty. As the days tick down, James can’t help but involve himself – and others – in potentially lethal situations.

The curse of the roadside bomb is a constant hazard in and around Baghdad, as Staff Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) discovers to his cost. Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) is devastated to lose his friend, while Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) carries the guilt of not preventing the tragedy around with him. The pair are partially consoled by the fact that Bravo Company have only 38 days left in Iraq, but the arrival of Sgt William James (Jeremy Renner) in the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team shakes up their careful, methodical ways.

Ignoring the unit’s robot, James puts on the blast suit and snips away at wires first, unconcerned for his own safety and that of his colleagues, who immediately fear for their own lives. They even wonder whether, given the inevitability of James getting them all killed, it would be preferable to save themselves by killing him first. Not that, given James’ habit of going beyond his missions to find answers, he doesn’t give plenty of opportunities to the US Army’s enemies.

Appreciating films ‘properly’ is often a matter of timing. What that specifically means here is that I should ideally have watched The Hurt Locker before contemporaries such as The Men Who Stare at Goats and Green Zone, and before the hoo-hah surrounding the Best Picture nominations given to Bigelow and ex-husband James Cameron. Because I didn’t manage that, I arrived at the film with certain expectations that – to be fair – are mostly met: Iraq (this time, actually Jordan) is presented as a chaotic, searingly hot place, its buildings bombed-out and/or bullet-ridden, Baghdad’s citizens interfering or desperately trying to turn the situation to their advantage.

The action is filmed in the uneasy, shifting style of Green Zone, too, the handheld camera bringing the viewer into the action as we nervously look towards the sinisterly static watchers, uncertain (like Sanford and Eldridge) whether they are holding remote detonators. The film deftly exploits the tension of bomb disposal, and when bombs go off, the explosions are filmed with some stunning slow-motion photography.

Yet The Hurt Locker is much more than the standard Why are we here?/My ‘friends’ are as likely to kill me as my enemies/War is Hell movie. Indeed, the film explicitly states that ‘War is a drug’, and as Kathryn Bigelow draws out both action and characterisation in extraordinarily long scenes (my mind having been conditioned by decades of ADHD editing), we see that this is certainly the case for James. His bravado initially comes across as recklessness, or perhaps a deathwish; but as we discover more about him and his colleagues, we discover that beyond the cigarette-smoking pursuit of cool is a complicated man, with a failed marriage at home and reminders of the bombs he’s defused under the bed.

His relationship with Sanford and Eldridge is also well developed, the film giving plenty of time to their violent social interactions, to Sanford’s desire for a family and to Eldridge’s conversations with his confessor, Colonel Cambridge (Christian Camargo). Writer Mark Boal consistently and cleverly subverts the viewers’ expectations; at first, James’ friendship with a soccer-playing lad called Beckham (Christopher Sayegh) seems like a facile and sentimental touch, but it becomes an essential part of the plot, which shifts in unexpected and uncomfortable, gruesome ways.

The brief, uneasy section of the James family’s home life approaches genius, as does the grim comedy of the final caption: here’s a man who loves the idea of having a son to go back to, but finds that his life only has meaning on duty, not among the mundane choices of suburban day-to-day existence. Which is not to say that everything works – the episode with Ralph Fiennes’ contractors goes on much, much too long and fails to say much about the mercenary private operators attached to the war – but on the whole, the film does its job brilliantly. I’ve not mentioned the actors, but it’s not because of any deficiencies on their part; rather, it’s because they inhabit their roles so well – Renner is particularly fine.

The Hurt Locker isn’t a film which tries to say anything particularly profound about the Iraq War, or war in particular; and experts may nitpick about the realism or otherwise of what it portrays. On the other hand, it does provide a superbly-filmed and acted insight into the work of an astonishingly brave group of men, also revealing conflicts between colleagues and exploring their troubled minds. A superior film in every respect and one which, it goes without saying, kicks Avatar’s dumb blue ass from here to next week.

Advertisements

Slumdog Millionaire

WFTB Score: 19/20

The plot: Chai wallah Jamal, a survivor of Mumbai’s overflowing slums, finds himself on a famous quiz show and, miraculously, one question away from the big prize. The show’s makers are convinced he is cheating, but in interview Jamal reveals that the events that have shaped his life have provided him with the answers he needs; to the questions he answers for money, and more importantly to those concerning his relationships with his brother Salim and lifelong sweetheart Latika.

With a single, elegant device, Slumdog Millionaire – based on the novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup* – takes an alien world and presents it in a form that can be easily and universally understood. That world is Bombay/Mumbai, and the device is the ubiquitous quiz show Who wants to be a Millionaire? As we follow the progress of lowly call centre tea-maker Jamal Malik through the rounds of questions, the viewer is able to appreciate that Jamal is both incredibly lucky and horribly badly treated.

The story unfolds across two timeframes: in the first, the adult Jamal (Dev Patel) is one question away from winning 20 million rupees (less than half a million pounds, euros, or dollars, incidentally, but still a fortune in India), but Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor), the mocking presenter of the show, is sure that Jamal is a cheat, and turns him over to the brutal police who attempt to beat a confession out of him.

During the course of the interview, the tape of the show is replayed and as Jamal explains himself, the second timeframe opens up. Beginning with Jamal and his brother Salim as young ‘slumdogs,’ we see them as youngsters playing cricket on the airport runway, working as toilet attendants and fleeing from an attack against Muslims which sees their mother murdered and the boys left to fend for themselves, Jamal taking pity on fellow outcast Latika.

The three are ‘rescued’ by an orphanage, but this turns out to be nothing more than a front for a corrupt gangster called Maman (Ankur Vikal) who maims boys so they can beg more effectively and grooms girls for prostitution. Tough guy Salim, saving Jamal from his fate, effectively seals his own even though both boys escape. Latika is left behind, and it is Jamal’s quest to find her again that drives him throughout the film, as the boys fleece tourists around the Taj Mahal before coming back to Mumbai.

Where the story then goes (the police slowly come round to accepting Jamal’s story, Prem feeds Jamal an incorrect answer, Latika and Salim both become involved with a gangster boss) is perhaps not a surprise, given the film’s insistence on destiny; however, the ease and confidence with which Danny Boyle (together with co-director Loveleen Tandan) tells the story is nothing short of superb: since we have seen the ordeals that these characters have survived in their short lives, we really hope that they will triumph, and Boyle (thanks to screenwriter Simon Beaufoy) achieves a perfect balance of ups and downs, of humour and tragedy.

The love story is ostensibly the key to the film, and this is played very nicely by Patel and Freida Pinto (as the adult Latika); but the real centre of the film is in the love-hate relationship between Jamal and Salim. Jamal is the thinker, the boy with emotion and enterprise; whereas Salim is from the outset the aggressor, the action man torn between advancing his own interests and protecting his little brother. Their respective destinies are often gut-wrenching but entirely believable, enhanced by some wonderful acting, most notably from the three youngest incarnations of Jamal, Salim and Latika – respectively Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail and Rubiana Ali.

Even more than these, the real star of Slumdog Millionaire is Mumbai itself, a troubled city riven with poverty, corruption, gangs and racial tension which evolves as quickly as the film’s characters. Thanks to some colourful and striking cinematography, the city is memorable even at its most squalid (the pull-back shot of the slums, or the young children climbing over the tips), and as technology and new building starts to take over, the slumdogs have to adapt. In the new city, money talks, and Jamal’s careless attitude to it lies in stark contrast to that of his brother. There have been complaints about Mumbai being exploited and the set-up as a whole being far-fetched, but there is little justification for the first accusation, and personally I find the drama of the film to be realistic and ultimately satisfying, especially since the Bollywood dance emphasises the fact that this is, after all, just a film.

This review is written on the day of the 2009 Oscars and as yet I don’t know if Slumdog Millionaire has won Best Picture**. All I can say is that for the other nominated films to be more deserving than Danny Boyle’s masterpiece, they will have to combine a look, a sound, a story and some beautifully natural performances with a spirit that says that although life can be cruel and unfair, the will to survive will win in the end. A simple message, possibly, but an uplifting one all the same.

NOTES: 1Having read the book since writing this review, I should add ‘rather loosely’. 2That seemed to go alright, didn’t it? I’ve not seen Slumdog a second time and my gut tells me that I may have been carried away with the emotion of the film when scoring. Still, I wouldn’t dream of changing the score without watching the movie again.

The Sound of Music

WFTB Score: 18/20

The plot: Impetuous postulate Maria may not have what it takes to be a nun, but the Reverend Mother decides she may be an ideal governess for the seven children of widowed naval hero Captain von Trapp. Although their personalities initially clash, Maria’s free-spiritedness captivates the Captain; however, more powerful forces than their love threaten the safety of his beloved Austria.

Those of you who have come across The Sound of Music halfway through during countless Easter holidays and thought, ‘Not this again!’, get it or rent it out and pay attention to the first couple of minutes, before the orchestra begins tinkling away, let alone before Julie Andrews opens her mouth. Pay attention to the snowy peaks, the shining river flowing through green valleys, the turquoise lakes, everything that makes Maria’s heart want to sing: that, my friends, is how to open up a stage musical for the big screen.

The opening caught my attention because the remainder of Wise’s film is unavoidably familiar, not just from repeated showings but also television shows based on, and promoting, a revival in the West End of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most famous musical. I can barely imagine that anyone will not know the plot, but to flesh out the above the film follows the story of Maria (Julie Andrews), a nature-loving postulate nun in late 1930s Salzburg whose continuous lateness causes disruption within the abbey.

Thinking that she needs to see more of the world, the Reverend Mother (Peggy Wood) packs her off to the luxurious von Trapp house, where the father is often absent and the seven children – ranging from about four to sixteen in age – are getting through governesses like nobody’s business. With patience, understanding and song Maria wins the hearts of the children, and when the Captain (Christopher Plummer) returns from Vienna he is upset by the wildness of his free-running kids but bowled over by their talent for singing, as is opportunist impresario ‘uncle’ Max (Richard Haydn). The third member of the party, Baroness Schraeder (Eleanor Parker) is not so impressed, but she is concentrating on snagging the Captain as a husband – only the governess does scrub up quite well… Meantime, the Nazis are just about to declare their Anschluss, uniting Germany with Austria, a move that not only disgusts the Captain but will undoubtedly see him called into the war effort.

Each of these story strands is pretty meaty on its own (the love triangle in particular has satisfying overtones of Jane Eyre), but in a musical the story has to be secondary to the songs: and the songs are, in the main, superb, flowing and epic when the mood demands it (The Sound of Music, Climb Ev’ry Mountain), playful at other times (How do you Solve a Problem Like Maria?, So Long, Farewell), and at others still beautifully simple (Edelweiss). The songs are so familiar they may sound simplistic nowadays, but each is memorable and serves its purpose perfectly. It may be an obvious statement but The Sound of Music celebrates the sound and emotional pull of music, not only bringing the von Trapp children back to their father, but also opening out the sense of Edelweiss so that it encapsulates the situation of Austria as a country (putting the Nazis noses out of joint at the same time, which is always a good thing).

Julie Andrews is perfectly cast as Maria, not so pretty that she would look out of place in the abbey nor so plain that the Captain would overlook her; she has a good singing voice, excellent comic timing and just the right mix of hesitancy and self-assurance. Christopher Plummer barks out his orders with a gleam in his eye and makes a convincing captain, whilst Parker as the Baroness is the villain of the piece yet still elicits our sympathy when she recognises she must give way. None of the children are unbearable (though the boys are a bit annoying), Charmian Carr in particular doing a fine job as Liesl, on the brink of womanhood, even if she is clearly well into her twenties in reality.

For me, the Sixteen going on Seventeen sequence with Rolfe (Daniel Truhitte) goes on a couple of minutes too long, and the same could be said for many of the film’s early sequences, but the music is always pleasant and the views are colourful and vibrant. I would have gladly cut out twenty minutes of dancing (and the whole of Lonely Goatherd – the puppets are ugly!), but I think this is probably more due to my modern impatient tastes than any fault of the film.

The last quarter of the film, featuring the family’s flight from the Third Reich and their tense seclusion amongst the abbey’s dead, makes for an exciting climax and a vivid contrast with the sunny – and rather cosy – look of the rest of the film. It also means that The Sound of Music has it all: love, songs, scenery, danger, laughter – it even manages to fit in a small on-screen role for Marni Nixon, famous voiceover for artists such as Deborah Kerr and Audrey Hepburn in other musicals. Little wonder that it won five of its ten Oscar nominations, including Best Picture; and whilst the more jaded viewer will continue to cry ‘Not again!’ when the film next appears on television, they will still hum along in the background as a whole new generation experiences the magic of Maria for the first time.

Titanic

WFTB Score: 13/20

The plot: Penniless artist Jack Dawson wins a lucky ticket back to America aboard the Titanic; and his luck improves further when he begins an affair with Rose, the desperately lonely fiancée of cold-hearted cad Cal. But just when Jack and Rose pledge their futures to each other, history – in the shape of a massive iceberg – interferes with their plans.

The name Titanic, to most, means an historic tragedy; but to salvager Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) the wreck means little more than a potential goldmine, as he hunts for a precious and highly valuable piece of jewellery called the Heart of the Ocean. He’s thwarted when he finds only a saucy sketch of a young woman wearing the necklace, and his mood isn’t lightened when he gets a phone call from someone claiming to be that woman, eighty-five years on. However, when Rose (Gloria Stuart) arrives she tells a compelling and convincing tale of romance, of being a seemingly privileged, art-loving girl (Kate Winslet) accompanied by a haughty mother (Frances Fisher) and even haughtier fiancé called Cal (Billy Zane), who reveals a nasty jealous streak when Rose’s life is saved by third class passenger Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the two begin to associate.

As Rose starts enjoying herself, living up to Jack’s exhortation to ‘make it count’, the pair begin a tryst under the nose of Cal’s personal assistant Lovejoy (David Warner). However, the reckless demands of White Star’s Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde) to get to New York at top speed, much to the dismay of noble ship designer Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber) and confuddled captain Smith (Bernard Hill), mean that April 15th, 1912 is a day that will live long in the memories of those lucky enough to survive, like the legendary ‘Unsinkable’ Molly Brown (Kathy Bates) and one – but not both – of our star-crossed couple.

Back in the mists of time when I first saw Titanic at the pictures, I was sympathetic to Cameron’s approach, as writer and director, to the story. Just like Life is Beautiful, the tragedy of the event was too much if you tried to tell everyone’s tales, so it made sense to encapsulate it in a single – if fictional – relationship. Cameron evidently designed Titanic to be as accessible as possible: the framing device, exploring the ship from a modern perspective and explaining why it sank before it happens (so to speak); the love story, rooting the tale in something fundamentally interesting and turning the imminent disaster into an action-packed race against time; the leads, attractive without being ridiculously glamorous (Winslet – and this is a good thing – is what you’d call a ‘healthy girl’). For all the brief titillation offered by Winslet’s nudity, Titanic is a movie for impressionable (don’t make me say ‘tweenage’) girls, sent all a-quiver by Leo’s bright blue eyes and non-threatening charm, and made jealous by Kate’s nice hair and fabulous dresses.

The downside of this simplistic approach is that Cameron can be accused of treating the tragic deaths of 1,500 real-life people as mere extras in a glorified pantomime (you could even argue that Titanic specifically riffs on Aladdin). And the story is flimsy – good-looking bloke catches the eye of someone else’s listless trophy fiancée; they act irresponsibly, have sex, then disaster strikes – just in time, really, because neither has enough about them to sustain the interest of the more demanding viewer. Winslet’s poor little rich girl (her words, not mine) has conflicts, no doubt, but they are brushed aside by the action-based events that follow.

Meanwhile, Jack’s carpe diem approach and rough talents are scant grounds for a love that lasts a lifetime – you’d imagine Rose would have quickly tired of his happy-go-lucky ways when they landed in New York and reality struck, had the iceberg not struck first. The film’s class politics are truly ridiculous, pitting the stuffy, unhappy rich against the vibrant, drinking poor, complete with patronising Oirish idioms: ‘Jaysus, Mary and Joseph!’ exclaims a flame-haired woman, marvelling at Rose’s ballet tricks, in one of many choice pieces of naff dialogue. Others include Brock’s challenge to Rose, during the mostly unlovely modern-day bits: ‘Are you ready to go back to Titanic?’; Jack, of one of his models: ‘A one-legged prostitute – good sense of humour though’; or the inappropriately excitable comments as the ship is about to go down (Rose: ‘Jack! This is where we first met!’; a little later still, Jack helpfully points out ‘This is it!’).

Equally pantomimic is Cal’s relentless pursuit of Rose and/or the Heart of the Ocean, with the rabid assistance of his henchman Lovejoy (Warner seems to enjoy the part). Cowardly bully Cal and his vicious attack dog are thoroughly hissable panto villains, but they take centre stage for too long. Once the iceberg hits and it becomes clear that every passenger will be affected, the film surely has bigger fish to fry; and while the increasingly waterborne stunts have their drama – plus the welcome humour of Winslet’s wild axe-swinging – the action eventually exists for its own sake, needlessly prolonging the movie’s thrills-and-spills bent when a sombre, elegiac register would seem to be the order of the day. Luckily, Cameron does briefly relent, allowing Gloria Stuart to revel in her emotions as she reaches back in time*; and in the story proper when everyone stops talking and the band, brought on deck to calm fraying nerves, plays their final piece, their plaintive melody juxtaposed with passengers accepting their fate and tenderly preparing for the worst.

However, the key to the movie’s extraordinary success lies not with the small moments, but with how brilliantly the big, pantomimic emotions play out on the big screen, where the majesty of the thundering engine room, the unnatural sounds of the ship breaking up and the enormous scale of the incredible stuntwork are experienced in full. And it’s not fair to criticise the film for what it became, a regrettable demonstration of the scalability of the film industry; or for the fact that, thanks to Celine Dion, James Horner’s pipe-laden melodies became hackneyed in our ears; or for the fact that the special effects now have a distinctly digital and occasionally unconvincing sheen.

No, to put it simply, Titanic works as an event, experienced communally in a cinema. James Cameron may not be able to tell a nuanced or complicated story, but, as he would prove again with the hugely successful Avatar, he understands mainstream movie-making like no-one else. Unlike Avatar, and despite its primary-colour, simplistic brushstrokes, Titanic’s big emotions feel genuine on the big screen; which is why, even with massive reservations, I’d gladly watch it repeatedly in all its overblown, overlong glory.

NOTES: On the other hand, I only recently realised that Rose dies at the end, which casts a different light on the technically proficient reanimation of the ship’s hulk to its former glory – all the other dead people have been hanging around just waiting for her to snuff it, so they can applaud her and Jack’s snogging? Give me a break.

The King’s Speech

WFTB Score: 17/20

The plot: The stammering Duke of York, nicknamed ‘Bertie’, does everything he can to avoid the public spotlight. But history is to thrust greatness upon him, as elder brother David/Edward VIII finds the crown weighs all too heavily on his head. As Bertie becomes George VI, he comes to rely on unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue to help him prepare for some very significant public duties.

It’s 1925, and gruff monarch George V (Michael Gambon) encourages his family to speak to the peoples of the British Empire by way of the new-fangled sound radio. For Albert (Colin Firth) – the Duke of York to the public, ‘Bertie’ to his family – the closing speech at the Empire Exhibition is pure torture, because he suffers from a debilitating stammer which becomes crippling when magnified by the pressure of speaking in public. The humiliation doesn’t seem to matter much – after all, elder brother the Prince of Wales (Guy Pearce) is destined to succeed – but Bertie’s wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) is worried enough to seek help from stuffy experts.

When traditional methods prove useless, Elizabeth turns to the less conventional assistance offered by Australian sometime actor Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Logue’s methods and manner with royalty are both unusually direct, and his lack of deference (he dares to call the king ’Bertie’) sends the Duke into a rage.

Amazingly, Albert doesn’t stammer when he’s angry, swearing, or singing, and Logue uses these tools to make progress, though his patient resists any idea of being psychoanalysed. A good thing, too, since the death of George V in 1936 thrusts an unwilling Edward VIII and his lover, married American Wallace Simpson (Eve Best) into the spotlight. The country won’t support their king marrying a divorcee, but they’re equally unlikely to rally behind a king who can’t get his words out; with Hitler’s Nazi’s causing trouble, that could be a massive problem for Britain. Bertie, accepting his duties as George VI, needs to shed his stammer and his self-doubt if he‘s going to gird the country‘s loins for the inevitable war to come; and despite the odd disagreement, the king needs Lionel at his side to give him a voice.

During an early Christmas address, Gambon’s old king has a great line in which he grumbles that radio has reduced the monarchy to the lowest possible role – that of an actor. It must be a self-knowing joke, because The King’s Speech is first and last an actor’s film; and to a great extent, that actor is Colin Firth. On a purely technical level, his portrayal of Albert’s stammer is both utterly convincing, aided no end by some great sound editing; but more than that, the speech impediment, and the way he uses it, is incredibly moving.

In part, Bertie is soft, a father doting on Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret to compensate for his own rough upbringing: as we and Logue slowly discover, he was bullied by his father, elder brother and nanny, and grieved for his epileptic brother Johnnie. In another part, he’s unable to express his anger and rage, making him fear that he is weak and unworthy of the responsibility heading his way. And in another part still, there is both a sly, self-deprecating humour and a smidgen of resolve in the Duke’s demeanour, which gives us hope that when he most needs to, he will deliver the speech of his life. It’s a major feat that Firth has put all this into Bertie, yet made him entirely human, believable, and – whatever you might think of royalty – very likeable.

Geoffrey Rush’s calm, underplayed performance is the exact opposite of Firth’s (Rush had his own brush with stammering stardom in Shine, of course); and this is why it’s every bit as good. He is the solid centre around which Bertie orbits, someone who tells it like it is and doesn’t give a damn about titles; we even get a glimpse of Lionel’s own frustrations, the failed actor in a grotty, peeling office. Also excellent are Bonham Carter and Gambon (Timothy Spall, fruitily taking off Winston Churchill, makes up a mini-Harry Potter reunion), and Pearce also convinces as David/Edward VIII, the playboy whose pleasure-seeking makes him deeply unsuitable for ’kinging’.

Not only does everyone look and sound the part, but the set designers and effects people have done great work to recreate both Logue’s humble rooms and grand royal palaces. And it’s all filmed with a sensitive eye by Hooper, dishing out the tale in measured scenes and making us feel every inch of Albert’s progress, without laying it on with a trowel (he could have used flashbacks to show us B-B-Bertie’s childhood, but thankfully didn’t). What’s more, David Seidler’s script (the genesis of which sounds fascinating in itself) delivers a surprising number of laughs, especially in the explosive (but selective) use of expletives

The story of Bertie and Lionel’s growing friendship is polished, involving, and manages to hype up the importance of one speech without being trite. It isn’t, however, particularly original. Though it concerns itself with kingship rather than sports, the overcoming-the-odds tale in The King’s Speech is every bit as formulaic as Rocky, Dodgeball or The Karate Kid, including misgivings between master and pupil and a couple of obligatory setbacks: firstly, there’s a beautifully-shot but credibility-stretching exchange where Albert puts the commoner in his place – though this does result in a marvellous scene where Logue’s unsuspecting wife Myrtle (Jennifer Ehle, famously Firth’s former fancier) discovers Their Royal Highnesses in her front room; secondly, there’s a last-minute hitch when resentful authority, embodied in Derek Jacobi’s Archbishop of Canterbury, digs for dirt on Logue and discovers he’s not qualified to do the job he nevertheless does so brilliantly (this turn-up, the closest the film comes to having a ’twist’, is overcome so quickly that it barely registers). It should be said, though, that these are comparatively piffling complaints given the quality and, more importantly, warmth of the whole.

The only other niggles you might have about The King’s Speech is that it’s not the fastest-moving beast in the world, and the expectant British populace are shown in just a handful of dismissive or anxious faces. Of course, if British history really turns you off, you’re not going to enjoy the film a great deal; but I only had a vague idea of – and interest in – the events surrounding Edward’s abdication and I still found the story fascinating. In the end, though, it’s Bertie’s, and Colin Firth’s, film. The King’s Speech is handsome, handsomely told and immaculately acted, is funny and affecting, and best of all can’t help but make you leave the cinema with a smile on your face.

Tom Jones

WFTB Score: 14/20

The plot: Although abandoned baby Tom is brought up as the son of the virtuous Squire Allworthy, few of his guardian’s virtues rub off on the lad, who proves to be a charming but incorrigible rogue and too much of a hit with the ladies for the liking of his true love Sophie’s father. Cast out into the world, Tom heads to London, where by coincidence Sophie has also fled; but before they can be reunited, Tom finds mortal enemies – and more than a few dangerous women – lying in his path.

Before that spoilsport Jane Austen came along and sublimated all the passion into fervently-written letters, country dances and chaste proposals, the English novel could be a hotbed of sex and debauchery, nowhere more so than in Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. But with the sixties just getting into swing, would the lusty youngster prove as much of a hit as his equally rambunctious Welsh namesake?

Tom begins his life as a foundling in the bed of Squire Allworthy (George Devine), the presumed son of wanton servant Jenny Jones. The mother is sent away and Allworthy raises the child as if he were his own; but as he becomes a young man, Tom (Albert Finney) proves to have a weakness for women, beginning with local strumpet Molly (Diane Cilento), whose swelling belly causes scandal at church and puts a dampener on Tom’s burgeoning relationship with his neighbour Sophie (Susannah York), the innocent daughter of red-faced bon viveur Squire Western (Hugh Griffith). When Tom rescues Sophie from a bolting horse, the pair seem destined to make a match; however, the young man has enemies in the shape of Mr Thwackum and Mr Square (Peter Bull and John Moffatt), tutors to Allworthy’s pious nephew Blifil (David Warner); and when Tom and Sophie’s love is discovered, they persuade Allworthy to send Tom away – the fact that Blifil has been promised to Sophie doesn’t help Tom‘s cause, either.

Sophie escapes from the planned union to be with her cousin Mrs Fitzpatrick in London (herself fleeing from an angry husband), whilst Tom makes his way in the world, picking up an unfortunate and very hungry female traveller called Mrs Waters (Joyce Redman) on the way. Sophie and Tom’s paths are destined to cross more than once, with Tom making something of a rake’s progress as he endures an up-and-down journey, in quick turn becoming the target of Mr Fitzpatrick’s anger, the plaything of wealthy London socialite Lady Bellaston (Joan Greenwood) and a convict destined for the noose.

I’ve said before (and will no doubt say again) that period films often say more about the time they were filmed in than the time they portray, and this is certainly true of Tom Jones. Richardson’s film comes from a time when studios were starting to enjoy being naughty (in Britain, the Carry on series was finding its feet), and Fielding’s novel is a heady mixture of bawdiness and comedy, brought to life vividly in easy-to-follow fashion by John Osborne’s humorous, unpretentious screenplay (with helpful narration to fill in any gaps).

The film is very saucy without being sleazy, and its irreverent experimentation with film techniques only occasionally feels dated. There’s much pleasure to be had in the famous eating scene involving Finney and Redman, for example, and a dynamic and exciting sense of speed to the hunt sequence; filmed with hand-held, aerial photography, the noise and chaos of the chase is vividly brought to the screen. This section in particular will do nothing for animal lovers, but it makes the film feel fresh and proves that there is more substantial fare on offer than simply a bawdy comedy. The film’s weightier moments – such as Tom’s taunting of his foes when Allworthy unexpectedly recovers from illness, denying them a fortune, or the grottiness of Newgate prison – offset some of Richardson’s less successful experiments, such as the camera swirling about the flowers to indicate the giddiness of Tom and Sophie’s love, the indulgent, sly looks to camera or the sometimes too-frantic score. I’m not a big fan of the sped-up film in some of the comic scenes either, since they remind me of Benny Hill; but this is a matter of taste and Tom Jones can‘t be blamed for what followed it.

All the film’s good work would be for nothing were the performances not up to scratch, but luckily everyone who matters (and indeed everyone who doesn’t matter so much) is very good. Finney makes our hero pleasingly feckless but essentially good-hearted, while York is sweet without being insipid and Griffith is splendidly boisterous as her father, always on the lookout for a hunt or a roll in the hay; David Warner, who does disdainful superiority like few others, is also excellent. There are also lively comic performances from Edith Evans as Western’s interfering sister, Patsy Rowlands as Sophie’s maid Honor and Peter Bull’s Thwackum, Bull a man with a face born to be outraged. Special mention should go to Joyce Redman for the moment when the film scandalously – though briefly – implies that Tom has lain with his own mother: her look to camera is priceless.

For many reasons, Tom Jones was one of the Best Picture winners I didn’t particularly look forward to watching; I imagined it would either be a dry telling of a fusty 18th Century tale or a movie that tried too hard to be funky and relevant to its original 60s audience. However, whilst both of these are true to some extent, Richardson’s film is surprisingly funny and easy to watch. And whilst it’s never glib about the source material, it treats Fielding’s novel neither as a precious gem nor a vague template to be discarded at will. Future adaptors of prim Miss Austen may wish to take note.

A Beautiful Mind

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Brilliant mathematician John Nash comes up with revolutionary new theories that are to have profound effects on global economics, bringing him fame, respect and a beautiful wife. However, whilst working for the military he is also recruited by a shadowy agency who ask him to work on a top-secret assignment. The stress of the work and secrecy have their own profound effect on Nash’s health.

Hot on the heels of A Sixth Sense and Fight Club came this interesting exercise in things not quite appearing as they seem. Ostensibly a biopic of John Nash’s eventful life, A Beautiful Mind is both much more and a little less than that. If that sounds confusing, all will be explained; however, if you haven’t seen the film yet and think you might want to at some stage in the future, I would advise you to stop reading now.

Because: Like the two films mentioned above, A Beautiful Mind contains a plot twist that turns everything on its head, though halfway through rather than at the movie’s climax. Like the other films, the revelation makes subsequent viewings of the film a completely different experience to the first; unlike them, I’m not sure that the film is still successful regardless of whether or not you know what’s going to happen.

But to begin at the beginning: Russell Crowe is John Nash, a brilliant but socially inept young mathematician who arrives at Princeton University in the late 40s and fails to make friends except for swaggering housemate Charles (Paul Bettany), who does nothing but hang about and distract John from coming up with the original idea that will make his name. However, inspired by thinking of optimum courtship strategies – the film is, ideally for the mainstream, very light on actual maths – Nash comes up with a groundbreaking thesis on governing dynamics (or something).

Five years later, Nash is teaching at MIT and undertaking code-breaking work for the Pentagon, facing further distractions in the shape of attractive, forthright student Alicia (Jennifer Connelly) and hat-wearing secret agent William Parcher (Ed Harris), in addition to Charles who now has an orphaned niece in tow. Parcher takes Nash aside one evening and informs him of a highly confidential assignment: The Russians have obtained a portable atomic bomb which they plan to detonate in America, and are swapping codes through newspapers and magazines. Nash is charged with looking through the magazines to find and unscramble the codes. As his involvement in the plot, and paranoia, deepens and things become more dangerous, Alicia, now his wife and pregnant, grows increasingly concerned that John’s world is falling apart.

If you don’t want to spoil it for yourself, now’s your last chance… Okay. A psychiatrist (Christopher Plummer) arrives to calm Nash down, and in his office it is revealed that neither Charles, his niece, nor Parcher are real, Nash suffering from schizophrenia which causes him to hallucinate. Credit must be given to director Ron Howard for managing the story well, making the imaginary characters plausible whilst dropping in small clues; but it does also feel like a bit of a cheat, and though it is a terrific surprise on a first viewing, the second time round you do wonder what actually happened to Nash during the events of the film’s first hour.

Alicia stands by, suffering with her husband as John undergoes Electro-Convulsive Therapy, and the film changes focus, concentrating on Alicia as much as it does John as it shows them struggling to operate as a normal family. I was disappointed by the shift from thrilling drama to human one, especially since the formerly edgy characters begin to give worthy, sentimental speeches typical of some of Ron Howard’s other work. Although Nash is far from cured, he and his wife work through their difficulties by concentrating on the love they have for each other and ignoring the hallucinations that demand John’s attention – he even says goodbye to them sentimentally (the little girl hallucination cries!).

Running out of events in Nash’s life, the film zooms forward twenty years to when Nash starts teaching again, and then another sixteen to two moments of unforgivable mawkishness. Firstly, echoing a scene Nash has seen in his youth (and which we just know is going to come his way), Nash receives pens from fellow professors as a mark of respect; secondly, as Nash receives the Nobel prize, he gives a corny speech in praise of his wife and the ‘mystical equations of love.’ Not only is this the wrong time and place for such a speech (and, as the DVD extras show, a million miles away from the real 1994 ceremony), but it is entirely out of character for Nash compared with the rest of the film.

As far as performances go, Crowe is credible as the disturbed mathematician, bringing off his idiosyncrasies with aplomb, even if he looks a little chunky for the role. Connelly, in her Oscar-winning performance, displays the full range of emotions, strong and supportive but capable of frustration and fear. There is plenty to enjoy about A Beautiful Mind, especially as a naïve viewer, but perhaps not enough to maintain interest on repeat viewings unless, as the Academy obviously did, you like life stories with a sugary coating.