After the Golden Globes, the BAFTA and Oscar Awards will soon be upon us. Paul Bassett has been watching some of the main contenders.
The Banshees of Inisherin
Martin McDonagh has a thing for place names. His plays have Galway locales – Leeann, Inishmaan, Connemara, and Inishmore – in their titles. The hit films he’s written and directed – In Bruges (2008) and Three Billboards outside Ebbings, Missouri (2017) – continue the knack.
The Banshees of Inisherin, McDonagh’s latest movie, is set on a remote island off the west coast of Ireland. It shows the individual and the idiosyncratic, the world in a village. Achingly beautiful skies and seascapes contrast with dank interiors – cottages, farmhouses and pub.
It’s as much about the banshees as Inisherin. The peculiar foursome at the heart of the tragicomic plot are memorable as characters and for the performances that bring them to life.
Barry Keoghan, one of Ireland’s best film actors, gives us a subtle depiction of the savvy village idiot, Dominic.
It’s April 1923. So stunted are prospects on the island that the clever, bookish Siobhan – a beautifully measured Kerry Condon, a McDonagh regular – sets her sights on the mainland. But her brother, Padraic (Colin Farrell) has simpler ambitions: to keep his cows and beloved donkey, deliver his milk churns and go to the pub every day with Colm (Brendan Gleeson, reunited with Farrell from In Bruges).
Musically gifted Colm, weary of fruitless drift, resolves to ditch the mundane, starting with Padraic. Gleeson, mad-eyed and moody, is wonderfully dour. You wouldn’t go drinking with dullard Padraic for the craic, but Farrell’s interpretation, a poignant mixture of humour and pathos, tugs at the heart.
The uncoupling of Colm and Padraic sparks a vendetta of deception, drowning, self-mutilation and a fierce inferno.
The lengths the pair go to beggar belief. How far can male brutality go? Does their caustic feud – five years after the First World War and two years into the Irish Free State, with Civil War reprisals raging – echo not just the mainland explosions, but also the desperate clashes of early twentieth century Ireland and beyond?
Lydia Tar (Cate Blanchett) is a prodigious talent – a high-profile conductor (orchestra, not bus). You expect the familiar rubric ‘based on a true story’ to appear, but she and the plot are fictional.
Lydia leads a life of phenomenal pressure – composing, conducting, teaching and keeping her tumultuous personal life together.
She is imperiously at home in the top-down world of classical music. In a rare case of shared decision-making, she was elected chief conductor by the players of the Berliner Philharmonic (as happens in real life). But, with Lydia on the podium, democracy doesn’t count – she crowbars an item on to the programme (Elgar’s Cello Concerto), naming her favourite as the soloist.
In an interview at the start of the film, during which Lydia is addressed as “Maestro”, she claims she can stop time when she conducts. Later, her genius tainted by manipulation of the people around her, we see – ominously – a metronome being wrenched to a halt.
Like Lydia herself, the film moves at an intense pace between encounters, both professional and personal. The imagery is rich, with alternating shifts of colour and monochrome, amplified sounds and silence, harsh backgrounds and dream sequences, reflecting the complex layers of Tar’s mercurial life.
She wants to nail the definitive recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. The exquisite fourth movement was played over Visconti’s 1971 film Death in Venice. “Vergessen Sie Visconti!” Lydia commands the players. Personally, I can’t forget it – hearing it always makes me cry.
As she strives to rise above the cracks in her relationships, her attempts to separate art from the artist come back to haunt her. During a New York masterclass, she humiliates a student who refuses to play Bach because “dead, white, male CIS composers are not my thing.” Anti-Tar protests go viral, threatening her artistic triumph.
Tar is a fascinating story about art, power, talent, cancel culture and love, with a blistering central performance from Blanchett. She’s scarcely off-screen and learned piano, conducting and German for the film. Her supreme attention to every detail makes her portrayal utterly convincing. It certainly puts her in contention for her third Oscar and fourth BAFTA.
Who better than Bill Nighy to go from pinched bureaucrat to benevolent rebel? There he is, with a coterie of bowler-hatted civil servants, umbrellas tightly furled, crammed in the regular steam train commute into 1950s London. Then, his carefully routined life upturned by a terminal medical diagnosis, that ferrety face gradually breaks into a smile.
From the story of Mr Williams (Nighy) – an epiphanous shift from desiccated widower to playful hero – Living might at first seem another take on classic British Passport to Pimlico eccentricity.
Not quite – the film’s contributors include Leo Tolstoy (who wrote 1886 novella), Akira Kurosawa (directed the 1952 film), Kazuo Ishiguro (he scripted this version) and Oliver Hermanus (who directed this film), with all these sources distilled into a tale of reflection, soul-searching and understanding. The camera lingers mellifluously; the palette of colours is beautiful, the soundtrack haunting and spare.
Mr Williams pleads the case of a group of women refused a playground, politely persisting until it happens. We’re used to seeing Nighy, in films like About Time and Love Actually, use comedy to show pathos. Here the pace is more glacial. He delicately suggests what it means to recapture a lost humanity, to forge an authentic, compassionate life – at least what’s left of it – from a sterile one. As he sways on a swing, in the snow, gently singing “Oh Rowan Tree”, he is smiling. It’s a pleasure to watch.
Other ones to watch
Babylon gives a 2022 picture of Hollywood in the roaring 1920s. It includes a homage to Singing in the Rain, 1952’s vision of that same decade.
This new take on the shift from silent films to talkies, with Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt, could not be less like the Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds classic. Everything in Babylon is excessive, including its length (three hours and ten minutes).
We see an incontinent elephant amid cocained, naked bodies; a fight with a rattlesnake and a brown-skinned trumpeter forced to darken his face with burnt cork. But these are spectacular sketches in what can feel like Elvis – another awards contender – described by The Guardian as a film-length trailer, “a relentless, frantically flashy montage”.
The deeper narrative of Babylon belongs to two outsiders: the trumpeter and a Mexican wannabe producer – a brilliant performance by Diego Calvo – who survive the hedonistic burn-out party. But what a party!
The Good Nurse is a true-crime thriller, with great performances from Jessica Chastaine and Eddie Redmayne. Chastaine plays Amy, both medic and patient. Redmayne is Charlie, her colleague and helpmate – or so she hopes.
The shocking reason behind deaths at the New Jersey hospital creeps upon us. There’s an incidental shock for those of us still lucky to have (just about) free health care, when Amy has to pay almost $1000 for a diagnosis, never mind the treatment bills to come. To ensure these, she has to keep working, but who will keep her illness secret as well as look after her daughter?
The focus stays tightly on Amy’s home and the hospital – complicit in its failure to screen employees – as the police try to catch the killer. The underlying questions loom larger – not just who did it and why, but what sort of health system is so cruelly unaccountable?
If you hate pretentious restaurants, your milk of human kindness will curdle at first sight of the private island restaurant in The Menu, run by top chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). But director Mark Mylod has decided – on behalf of all us anti-foodies, maybe – that revenge is a dish best served bold.
In a whizzed-up foam of increasingly grotesque courses, each solemnly introduced by a smug Julian, the ultra-rich guests are told that they’re about to “ingest entire ecosystems”. The bill looks likely to cost an arm-and-a-leg, at least.
If food is theatre, this is the cruelty and absurd kind. After the breadless bread basket, the fawning diners should save themselves and leave, but only the rebel Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) has the sense to order cheeseburger and fries – to go!
Finally a brief mention of four other films worth catching if you haven’t already. My Old School blends the facts of Brandon Lee’s return, aged 32, as a pupil to Bearsden Academy with the fiction of Alan Cumming lip-syncing Lee’s confession.
Young Plato, also set around a school – a Belfast primary – is a documentary about an inspirational head teacher who uses Greek philosophy to boost the boys’ confidence.
Nitram has a riveting performance by Caleb Landry Jones as an unhinged young Tasmanian fired up, in part, by the Dunblane tragedy. When you learn he went on, in real life, to shoot dead 35 people, it becomes almost too disturbing.
Finally for pure eccentricity, try Brian and Charles, the tale of a lonely inventor building a robot companion. Their daffy adventures in rural Wales are the most charming slice of whimsy you could hope for.
Paul Bassett’s Arts and Entertainment is a regular feature of Bylines Scotland, published on the second Friday of each month. Paul returns with Arts and Entertainment on Friday 10 February.