The King

thekingOne thing is certain about this gloomy, low-key, decidedly modern take on Henry V: Timothée Chalemet is a future superstar, and his performance here in the title role has me so intensely excited for Villeneuve’s Dune next year that its almost painful knowing that film is still over a year away. If his Paul Atreides is as dark and moody and charismatic as his young Hal here, we will be in for something truly special. He can hold the viewers attention with a frown or a stare, and is surprisingly adept physically considering his slender boyish frame- he commands the film in every scene he is in, holding his own despite the great cast that threatens to steal the film from him.

If only the film was the sum of its parts. Certainly, it looks great, with beautiful cinematography and excellent art direction and set design. It sounds even better, with an absolutely gorgeous score by Nicholas Britell that deserves Oscar attention but will no doubt be ignored. It runs over two hours so never feels particularly rushed, the editing as deft as one could hope for, giving the scenes time to breathe, and the performances opportunity to shine.  As for those performances, Chalemet as I’ve noted is excellent, but he is ably supported by a terrific cast – Ben Mendelssohn, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, all in very fine form. This film should be great.

But something seems missing. I suspect its the fault of a script that really fails to ignite, but also feel that the choice may be deliberate- this film could easily have descended into the formulaic theatrics of Braveheart or Gladiator or so many other stirring historical epics that sweep people away with spectacle and stirring words and OTT performances. This film is very low-key, a gloomy, almost melancholic take on material many will be familiar with, albeit more sincere adaptations of the bard. I would imagine its an attempt to be fresh and ‘new’ but it ironically works against it.

It’s a difficult thing, sometimes, having seen so many films, I’m certain it colours my perception of new films, possibly unfairly. Someone younger than twenty, say, coming to this film having seen few if any historical dramas might come away absolutely impressed and overwhelmed in a very positive way. A whole new generation might connect with this film in ways I cannot fathom, seeing things in Chalemet’s performance that reflects the modern world and how their generation sees it through this tale of a distant past. Something, for me, was missing, however, and I’ve been quite perturbed by it. There’s possibly nothing as frustrating as a good film that might have been truly great. Nothing quite as puzzling as trying to find what is missing and not being certain. As I’ve noted, I suspect its really a matter of the script and its focus on keeping things realistic and reducing the tendency for theatrics. I applaud the intent but wonder if it was ill-judged, but in any case, I am sure I will return to this film again, and that’s not something you can often say about Netflix Originals.

Red Sparrow (2018)

redsp1Black Swan meets Tinker. Tailor… or Spies Like Us maybe. An old-fashioned cold-war spy thriller, surprisingly leaning toward the cerebral rather than the OTT fighting or stunts of films like Atomic Blonde or John Wick etc would seem right up my street, but something was wrong here. Maybe it was the strangely farcical plot, which is why I mentioned Spies Like Us. A renowned ballet star, Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), living in a concrete tenement block frozen in snow, is looking after her ill mother in-between ballet performances until during a ballet her leg is hideously broken when her dance partner misjudges a jump. Her career ended and her home and mother’s medical care (both provided by the Ballet company) under threat, she is approached by her uncle, Ivan Vladimirovich Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), who just happens to be a leading Russian intelligence operative, seeking her help with a case, after which he forces her to be recruited into the Sparrow Academy, where beautiful young Russians are trained in the arts of sexual manipulation and…

Okay, I’ll spare you and stop right there. It really is as silly and coincidental and plot-holed as it likely seems from that attempt at a summary. I haven’t even mentioned a good-hearted CIA operative, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and his Russian Mole (identity secret – a surprise twist later that seems one too many) who is being hunted down by the Russians following a messed-up rendezvous.

It seems well-intentioned and is indeed a return to old-fashioned spy capers but its just hamstrung by a crazy plot and awkward presentation. It just looks and feels wrong and none of the characters really convince- Lawrence’s frustrated Ballerina is just a mystery,  we never know what makes her ‘tick’, her dancing is quickly forgotten and in no time at all she becomes a hardened spy who can second-guess and manipulate and fight her way out of trouble when she needs to. There is a sexual undertone between she and her uncle that suggests a Black Swan-like darkness but its not developed, just hangs there, a plot-thread someone forgot or got embarrassed by or didn’t have the courage to develop.

So a frustrating (you should see the cast list- every few minutes it seems some other major actor appears, frankly the script is beneath all of them) film that I can’t really recommend. Even Jennifer Lawrence, who clearly tries, is found wanting and alarmingly vacuous. Some films are just duds, no matter how fine the cast or how proficient the crew (director Frances Lawrence of three of the Hunger Games movies). If the intention was to launch a new spy franchise for Jennifer Lawrence, then hopefully its failed and this will be consigned to the box for unwise cynical green-lights. Its long, its baffling, its ridiculous. Quite bizarre, and I still haven’t seen Lawrence’s mother! yet (what is happening regards her choice of movies post-Hunger Games?)- I’m wary about that one.