Monday, 24 October 2016

I, DANIEL BLAKE


I have a confession to make: despite the plaudits and accolades it has received, I don't think ‘I Daniel Blake’ is a very good film.

I'm making a distinction here between its political significance and the quality of filmmaking.  As a piece of social commentary it is outstanding: angry, deeply compassionate, full of integrity and typical of the committed work of a man who has, for 50 years, been shining a light on the iniquities of our increasingly divided society.

But, as filmmaking, it is not Loach's best.  And perhaps it's worth exploring a few of the things that let it down, particularly in terms of the strengths and flaws of its acting.

Aside from a rather clumsy and predictable storyline, there are some simplistic and obvious characterizations, such as the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ benefits assessors.  A number of the supporting cast are weak.  I know Ken Loach likes to use nonprofessional actors and I presume this is what some of them are.  While they function adequately, they are not wholly convincing.  More than a few lines of dialogue feel improvised and not in a good way - expositional and contrived rather than natural and true.  By comparison, the most powerful moment in the film, which takes place in a foodbank, needs no dialogue; we understand what has happened and why the character does what she does without the need for explanation.

But the chief disappointment is Dave Johns who plays Daniel Blake.  He looks the part, sounds the part, behaves the part but, to my mind, isn't really inhabiting the part.  He told the Guardian that his preparation amounted to not much more than filling in a Job Seekers’ Allowance form, taking a woodwork class and talking to a doctor about heart-attacks.  It shows.  He carries no real sense of personal history, with all the ups, downs, successes and failures that anyone of his age would have lived.  When he speaks of wanting to get back to work, I don’t disbelieve him, but I don’t feel I am watching a man humiliated by being unable to earn his living.  When he talks about his deceased wife, it’s not really underpinned by anything substantial.  Again it’s not exactly that I disbelieve him, and I’m certainly not suggesting he should have worked to ‘show’ us anything, but when people speak about real memories there is a depth and complexity that is absent here.  If you are moved I suggest it's probably because of the story and the writing, not because you are watching a man looking back on an important part of his life with complicated and mixed emotions.

Compare it with the deep sense of history that Hayley Squires brings to her portrayal of Katie, the single mother Daniel befriends.  Her past is very present and when she talks about specific events it is vivid and layered.  Even though she doesn’t go into details, I believe that there is a complicated history with the fathers of her two children, full of regrets, hurts and upsets.  When we see her on the phone, I absolutely believed that her mother was on the other end of the line, even though I know there her voice was probably added in post production.  I know nothing at all about Squires’s process but, whatever it is, it has given a grinding depth and weight to Katie.

A couple of weeks ago I saw a wonderful, small Irish film, at the London Film Festival, called ‘A Date for Mad Mary’, written and directed by Darren Thornton.  The three leads, all women in their late teens or early twenties, are fantastic.  Somewhat embarrassingly, given that I teach screen acting at a drama school, I also strongly suspect that they are untrained because they are so natural.  I haven't been able to find out whether this is true but the suspicion alone is troubling. All three simply commit, wholly and uninhibitedly, to the imaginary circumstances.

There is one particular scene the day after two of them have spent the night together, where each tries try to figure out how she feels and how the other feels.  Most of what passes between them is unspoken and it's a beautiful scene, filled with vulnerability, hope and confusion.  We saw them kissing but it was unclear, and is unimportant for us to know, what took place sexually after that.  The point is that they know both what happened and know how it fits into their profoundly imagined lives. It's raw, messy and complex.

I know nothing about either Thornton's methods or the background or process of the two actresses, Se├ína Kerslake and Tara Lee, but I know truthful acting when I see it.  The film may lack the political clout and significance of ‘I, Daniel Blake’ but it’s more moving because its protagonists are much richer creations.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

THE BIG SHORT


This is a film that should not work.  The plot follows the slow degradation of the financial markets, so it has an opaque and complex narrative where the filmmakers have to work really hard to simplify things, like Collateralised Debt Obligations, that most of us neither understand nor care about.  It's set in the world of high finance which, apart from the superficial sparkle that grotesque amounts money can spawn, is a pretty dull place. Plus, it's a story to which we all know the outcome.

And yet it succeeds brilliantly.  It is incredibly well directed by the most unlikely person: goofball-comedy specialist, Adam McKay.  The editing, pacing and tone are all flawless.  It’s light of touch, yet moral without being sanctimonious, convincingly depicting the brutal, feral nature of its dog-eat-dog setting and conveying the excitement of ‘the deal’ without losing sight of the tragedy that the real victims of the greed and sickening crookedness were the poor.

And it features outstanding acting across-the-board.  Characters that could easily have been ciphers or appeared simplistically obnoxious are humanised, without being Hollywood-ised.

The whole cast is terrific but the technique of the four name stars – Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt – is deeply impressive.  Their unobtrusive but masterful relationship with the camera shows why they are heavyweights.

Christian Bale, playing a super-high-functioning investor with Asperger's, works the doughnut (if this means nothing to you, you can read more about it in my book ‘From Stage To Screen: a theatre actor's guide to working on camera’) well but conventionally.  He lets us in, but we're not sure what we see there, which entirely befits a character who knows he is an oddball but is powerless to change it.

Ryan Gosling is similarly straightforward and available.  We don't see much behind his eyes either because, as he acknowledges, he's greedy and shallow and that's about it.

Both these actors have repeatedly shown themselves to be versatile, daring and the antithesis of vain.  I simply wouldn't have recognised Ryan Gosling as the same actor who was in A Place beyond the Pines.

But it's Steve Carrell and Brad Pitt who I think are most impressive.

I've been a big fan of Steve Carrell as an actor ever since Little Miss Sunshine.  Unlike many comics (see my previous blog about being liked) he has no problem with switching off the funny guy.  Here he delivers a performance that is not just brave – he doesn’t appear to care whether or not we like him - it’s also very technically adept.  He plays way outside the doughnut, frequently allowing us little or no access; his focus is repeatedly down as he struggles with his rage.  He doesn't make a lot of eye contact with his colleagues and it feels similarly that he doesn’t want to make eye contact with us.

And Brad Pitt takes this further in his role as a reclusive ex-banker.  He's jaded and cynical and relieved to be out of the poisonous world of high finance.  Consequently most of the time he averts his gaze from the camera, reluctant to involve himself and seemingly wanting to hide from us.  His performance is superbly, invisibly controlled.  As the story progresses, he slowly opens himself up to the camera, edging towards the doughnut, until finally we can see both eyes.  But even then he positions his head such that the rim of his glasses semi-obscures his eyes from the camera lens.

You have probably met people in life who do this.  When they look you in the eye, they tilt their heads such that the rim of their glasses is always between their pupils and yours.  It’s no accident.  It may not be conscious, but I have no doubt that it’s prompted by a subconscious apprehension or anxiety about the intimacy that comes with eye contact.

I know nothing about the working methods of any of these actors.  But, whether deliberately or not, they are all choosing a relationship with the camera that is entirely consistent with their character and therefore allows us to understand more about them.