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Friday, 18 December 2015

A Cinephile Diary - young cinephile Shaun Heenan checks in from South West Rocks

Tuesday
Today’s cinema double began with the widely-maligned By the Sea (Angelina Jolie Pitt, 2015), which is better than most will have you believe, if not completely successful. Jolie and her actual husband Brad Pitt play an unhappy couple who try to escape from themselves on vacation in the south of France. Pitt spends his time drinking and Jolie spends her time hating him for it. Their quickly-established routine is shattered when an amorous newlywed couple move in next door to remind them of how much they’ve lost.

This is a type of film which has become rare in mainstream American cinema. It’s a quiet, slowly-paced drama which carefully examines a broken relationship. Instead of using plot and grand gestures, By the Sea focuses on the little things: the way Jolie leaves her sunglasses strewn upside-down, and the way Pitt patiently sets them back on their base; the knowing looks that are exchanged when they both know one or the other is lying; the way they partake in each other’s antisocial behavior, as a means of acceptance and forgiveness.

The film harkens back tonally to the European dramas of the 1960s. Despite real differences in directorial style, the film By the Sea kept reminding me of was Contempt (Le Mepris, Jean-Luc Godard, 1963). Unfortunately, Jolie’s film stumbles narratively later on, revealing a secret which (a) is obvious, and (b) doesn’t really matter. The film could also have done without one or two uncharacteristically bad lines of dialogue which spoil an otherwise rather good script. Problems aside, this is a much better film than Unbroken, and proves Jolie to be a director worth watching. What a shame the early reviews were so cruel to this movie; I was the only person in the entire cinema.

The day’s second film was the long-delayed In the Heart of the Sea (Ron Howard, 2015), which sets out to tell ‘the story which inspired Moby Dick’. As a frame for the main story, we see the author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) attempting to coax the truth out of the sole survivor of a destroyed ship, played by Brendan Gleeson. His tale features elements we recognise from the novel, but is unfamiliar enough to remain surprising. This film contains none of the characters we remember. There is no Ahab, no Queequeg and no Ishmael, and nobody is driven mad in a quest for vengeance. What we do get is a suspicious accent from Chris Hemsworth, and a whale which is so insistently aggressive that it feels like the killer from an ‘80s slasher film.

The film lacks personality, but makes up for it somewhat in sheer spectacle. These men trust their lives to flimsy rowboats, and tackle gargantuan sea monsters, and the film’s sense of scale tells us what a terrible idea that is. It would not be fair to detail the second half, but the plot goes in directions I did not expect, offering some of the film’s best moments. I enjoyed In the Heart of the Sea for what it is, but it’s hard to shake the idea that a modern rendition of the familiar story may have served audiences better. There’s a reason that book is so beloved.

Saturday
The only other film I watched this week was a DVD copy of Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933), about the Swedish monarch, crowned as a child when her father died at war. In Mamoulian’s hands, the film is less biopic than romance, taking its cues from history, but not letting fact get in the way of drama. To my shame, I’m mostly unfamiliar with the work of lead actress Greta Garbo, having only seen her in Best Picture winner Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932) before this. She’s excellent here, as a queen who rules with a great deal of sense and wisdom, but who wants for all the world to be treated like a normal person. She dresses in civilian clothes, and falls in love with a Spanish envoy (John Gilbert, who is less convincing than Garbo), who does not recognise her.

The film relies on theatrical devices, most notably when we are asked to watch a man speak at great length face to face with a fully made-up Garbo while failing to realise she is a woman. That’s not a plot point that works particularly well when juxtaposed with the many glamourous close-ups the film affords the actress. The film was released in an era before the Hayes Code was being strictly enforced, which allows for the sort of frank depiction of a romantic relationship which disappeared for decades afterwards. The real Queen Christina abdicated her throne for reasons entirely unlike those seen in the film. The same woman’s story is covered in The Girl King (Mika Kaurismaki, 2015), which has recently become available to rent online. I’m interested to take a look for comparison’s sake.

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