Passengers

Cast: Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia

Director: Morten Tyldum

Writer: Jon Spaihts


Space is a great setting for making movies about isolation. It is a vast, empty void where, as Alien observed, no one can hear you scream. Small wonder then that there is a great range of superb sci-fi films depicting this very idea from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Gravity. Passengers seeks to take the idea even further with its story of a forlorn man who is driven by his inconsolable loneliness and obsessive desperation to commit a terrible act. There is a compelling premise here that could have made for a fascinating film, sort of like a cross between The Shining and Vertigo set in space. The problem is that this film is more interested in portraying a fashionable Hollywood romance between its two attractive, likeable leads than it is in properly confronting the themes that have been set up. Thus we are instead treated to manipulated emotions, contrived storytelling and weak characterisations, all of which serve to enable Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence to enjoy their dark, insane, unhealthy relationship.

The starship Avalon is undergoing a 120-year journey with its 5,000 passengers to inhabit a new planet when it suffers damage passing through an asteroid field. As a result of this accident Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) wakes up 90 years too early on a ship with no other conscious people and no way of going back to sleep. In the year that he spends alone on the ship his only companion is the android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen). In a moment of despair Jim happens upon a pod belonging to Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) and is enamoured with her. After learning everything he can about her and (somewhat) struggling with his own conscience, Jim decides to wake her up so that he finally won’t be alone any more. He and Aurora (who is unaware of his action) meet and fall in love, but their love is threatened by the truth of their meeting, which will inevitably be revealed to her, as well as by the sustained damage suffered by the ship.

This is a dark, some might even say sadistic, premise for a film. The film however decides that Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence must be allowed to fall in love and end up together because… well, because they’re Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. Even if there was a believable way to spin their relationship into a positive one, the chemistry they share isn’t potent or alluring enough to justify it despite both of them being charming and attractive actors. There is a sense here that we are supposed to buy into their union based on the strength of their individual personas (because, for heaven’s sake, they’re Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence!) but the characters and dialogue they are given are just too bland and conventional for them to have any real kind of a spark. It gets worse when the inevitable revelation is made and Aurora correctly denounces Jim as a murderer because then the movie has to somehow make them get back together. The way they accomplish this is all at once cheap, forced, predictable, misguided and sexist.

I suppose there are some technically good aspects in this film that ought to be praised. Michael Sheen for instance gives a terrific performance in a role that he clearly had a great time playing. The film looks good in terms of its visual effects and production design, especially in the scene where Aurora’s swimming routine is interrupted by a malfunction in the ship’s gravity, but it isn’t exactly something to behold. The designs, such as that of the double-helix-shaped ship, are serviceable in giving the film the sci-fi look it wants but they never startle or astonish. I can also say that Tyldum’s direction is quite competent, but isn’t nearly as inspired or inventive as the films he clearly drew inspiration from (the most obvious of which were both made by Kubrick). At times the flow and composition of the film looks and feels so plain and unsurprising that I suspect the spaceship’s autopilot could probably have directed it.

D.H. Lawrence once called Jane Eyre a pornographic novel, criticising the way he felt Brontë had to manipulate her characters’ emotions and circumstances in order for them to end up together. That is basically how I feel about Passengers. There is no thought, no depth and no feeling to this film. The movie cares only about one thing and that is getting Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence to lock lips and look good doing it. The grim desolation that drove Jim to commit his crime, the heavy toll that the guilt takes on his soul, the rage, devastation and probably even violation that Aurora feels upon learning the truth; all of that is secondary. So great is the crime of trying to pass off such a disturbing concept as a positive love story that it outshines the crime of bringing together these two likeable, talented stars and not using them to their full potential. This movie is not a romance, it is wish-fulfilment; plain, stupid, unintentionally disturbing wish-fulfilment.

★★

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Nocturnal Animals

Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen

Director: Tom Ford

Writer: Tom Ford


After having worked as the creative director for both Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, Tom Ford has become a master of blending art, style and beauty in his films. In Nocturnal Animals he has created one of the most meticulously crafted and striking films of the year. It is an ambiguous film and the meaning of Ford’s images is not always clear, as with the very first shots which provoked outrage among both critics and viewers for what they deemed to be gratuity or body shaming. I must confess that I’m somewhat confounded by those images as well. I am restraining myself from revealing the nature of these images because I think the shock must have a role to play in the effect that Ford is going for. I will say that these images did make me feel uncomfortable but they also made me critically aware of my discomfort. Now I’m asking myself whether I was right to feel uncomfortable at all, a question that I suspect Ford must have expected from many of his viewers. This film is so perplexingly uncomfortable and beautiful at once that I think Ford might have been disappointed had I not left the screening feeling confounded.

After hosting a conceptual art exhibit at her gallery Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) receives a manuscript for a novel penned by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). Susan, living a dejected life of passionless work and love with her adulterous husband Hutton (Arnie Hammer), is captivated by the novel that has been dedicated to her. It tells the dark story of family man Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal) whose holiday with wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and India (Ellie Bamber) takes a horrific turn when they encounter a gang of reprobates led by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). This story provokes memories of Susan’s relationship with Edward and the troubles that drew them apart. He wanted her to pursue her artistic calling whereas she wanted him to be more realistic about his literary aspirations. As Susan reads more of Edward’s novel it becomes clearer to her that the disturbing, devastating story he has conceived is an allusion towards the terrible betrayal that destroyed their marriage.

There are three interrelated narratives being told that Ford blends together into one incredible whole. One is the story of an utterly miserable person reflecting on the choices that have led her to where she is. The other is a dark and twisted tale of loss and revenge. Finally, there is the story of an idealistic romance that woefully (and perhaps inevitably) ends in heartbreak. I was particularly struck by how invested and horrified I, much like Susan, was by the second narrative considering that it’s a fictional story within a fictional story. That narrative alone would have made for a compelling film complete with stellar performances by Taylor-Johnson and Michael Shannon as a worn-down lawman with nothing left to lose. The ultimate story that is being told however adds even greater depth and darkness to what is already an unsettling tale. Isla Fisher’s character for instance serves Edward’s story not only as a wife for his protagonist but also as a clear stand in for Susan. When we see what happens to Tony’s wife later in the novel, it invites all sorts of compelling questions about what exactly Edward is trying to tell his ex-wife by sending her this manuscript and dedicating it to her, especially in light of what we later learn about their marriage.

We see Adams play Susan as both a naïve romantic full of dreams and fancies and as a shell of her former self rendered numb by her cold, empty life. Even when Adams is simply reading the manuscript, she is performing. Her distraught reactions reinforce the ominous nature of Edward’s story every bit as much as Ford’s tone and style in his representation. In this film Susan undergoes a crisis of conscience as she contemplates whether she is being punished for an awful mistake and Adams is to be applauded for deftly conveying her tumultuous, troubled state of mind in a remarkably restrained, understated performance. Gyllenhaal’s Edward also provides an intriguing figure as the Susan’s spurned, estranged ex-husband. The film sets him up as an almost ethereal figure by providing us with two different versions of him: we see the Edward that Susan remembers in her memories and his representation of himself in the novel he’s written. Thus as the film draws closer to the climatic meeting between them, the more intrigued we are to see who he is today and how he really feels about Susan.

The final scene is one that has sparked much debate amongst viewers. Some might call it a confounding ending, but I for one would expect nothing less from such a confounding film as Nocturnal Animals. The film is fascinating in its dark and twisted nature and is almost sickening in its beauty. You want to look away but you just can’t. The cinematography, the colours, the music; it is a film that completely envelops you and refuses to let go. Some scenes are entirely unbearable to watch and yet, much like when I first saw Blue Velvet and A Clockwork Orange, my eyes were fixed squarely on the screen the entire time. It isn’t as violent a film as those two are but it is similar in its dreadful intensity and disturbed artistry. Most of the wounds that are inflicted in this film are emotional ones (the ones in the “real world” anyway) but they are severe all the same. Nocturnal Animals is also an ambiguous film, the kind that believes in providing the pieces to the puzzle but won’t assemble them for you. Watching this film was a gruelling experience but it was also a mesmerising one.

★★★★★

Far from the Madding Crowd

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple

Director: Thomas Vinterberg

Writer: David Nicholls


Reviewing an adaptation of a famous novel is always a bit weird, especially if it’s a classic. As someone who has never read Thomas Hardy’s novel and who has never watched any of its previous adaptations, I find myself in an uncertain position. On the one hand I was able to watch this film without any preconceived notions and therefore should be able to judge it based on its own merits. On the other hand reading the original source material would doubtless have provided me with an insight into what kind of film Vinterberg and Nicholls were trying to make. I’m not sure which would be worse; reviewing this film without enlightening myself on the actual themes and ideals it is trying to capture, or holding this film to a standard set by the source material rather than by its own standards. Is it fair for me to criticise Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby for missing the point of Fitzgerald’s novel even if not everyone in the audience will have necessarily read it? Am I a hypocrite if I say that the books don’t matter when reviewing something like the Harry Potter series but then say that they do when reviewing a film like Jane Eyre? Am I expected to familiarise myself with the themes, story and characters of Madame Bovary in order to develop an informed judgement of Sophie Barthes’ upcoming adaptation? I’m not sure if there is a simple answer to these questions. The question of the adaptation has always seemed like a grey area to me so I think I’ll have to proceed cautiously, share my own personal experience of this film, and hope that my ignorance does not prove to be a burden.

The protagonist of Far from the Madding Crowd is Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), the headstrong farmer with a fierce will who prides herself on her self-reliance and independence. When she inherits a wealthy and prosperous farm, she shows absolutely no intention of settling down to enjoy a life of comfort and leisure. She instead intends to remain in the thick of it and run her farm herself. Over the course of the film she attracts the attention of three vastly different suitors who offer three vastly different lives for her. There is Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), the humble sheep farmer who promises her a quiet but fulfilling life; William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), the wealthy landowner who promises her a life of security and comfort; and Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), the handsome sergeant who promises her a life of excitement and adventure. Bathsheba is a woman who has never dreamed of settling down and has no desire to be tamed by a husband. However the advances of these three men awaken feelings of passion and ambivalence within her as she is faced with the agonies of choice and of her own conflicted feelings.

Carey Mulligan was born to do period dramas and is on top form as the indomitable Bathsheba. She brings a lot of spirit to the role of a woman who defies the conventions of what a Victorian woman was expected to be. Bathsheba refuses to define or measure herself by other peoples’ standards, she isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, and she harbours a passionate and spirited nature that cannot be tempered. However her pride proves to be as much of a weakness as it is a strength as she finds herself unprepared for the effects that falling in love would prove to have on her will and judgement. Over the course of her romantic journey she does make mistakes and she does get hurt, but through it all she never allows these adversities to defeat her. Her character displays a strong sense of resilience and determination as she grows and learns more about herself and about the nature of love.

The three men of Bathsheba’s life are all portrayed impeccably by their actors and each one of them forms a compelling bond with her. Oak is a humble, soft-spoken man with a quiet dignity about him. He is the one out of the suitors who is most like Bathsheba and who understands her best, but he also understands that she is of a higher and nobler class than him and has resigned himself to the prospect of being nothing more than her faithful farmhand. Boldwood is a reclusive man who at first appears devoid of feeling. The beauty and kindness of Bathsheba awakens a romantic temperament that he had either lost or repressed long ago and he becomes determined to win her heart. Troy is a dashing, reckless soldier with a wild and enflamed passion that he directs towards Bathsheba. She finds herself attracted to his confidence and his daring nature and finds the danger he poses to be exhilarating. All three men bring out different sides of Bathsheba that conflict with one another as she attempts to make sense of her emotions.

The nature of love is discussed and explored by Bathsheba as she attempts to discover what exactly it is she wants. Falling in love was a prospect that she never intended to happen to her and she soon finds herself doubting and questioning her own judgement and feelings. What could easily have been a feeble tale of a woman discovering that she needs a man in her life to make her happy instead depicts a fascinating and emotional journey of romance, passion and self-discovery. As Bathsheba endures the pains, hardships and heartbreaks of love, she finds within herself the will to survive and persevere. I still don’t know whether that was the idea behind Hardy’s novel, but regardless it made for an enjoyable and emotional film with strong performances, beautiful music and stunning cinematography.

★★★★★