Posts Tagged ‘Rachel McAdams’


‘Not with a bang but a whimper’.

The words of Dolly Parton, or perhaps TS Eliot, I can’t remember which, come to mind when we watch Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final screen performance. A Most Wanted Man is by no means a bad film, in fact there is much to recommend it, yet Hoffman’s career is littered with so many jewels that you can’t help but compare. He was a great actor who saw a great screenplay lurking in the corner of a crowded room and went about seducing it until it was his. Hoffman had the ability to morph from weak and pathetic characters to ones full of an almost sociopathic confidence, domineering and charismatic.  He was willing to debase himself in order to portray the uglier side of life, all the while humanising characters that often might repulse you.

A Most Wanted Man follows hot on the heels of the last big John Le Carre adaptation, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. While that film delved into the murky waters of the Cold War era, this adaptation is a contemporary post 9/11 spy thriller. A young Chechen immigrant named Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin) arrives in Hamburg and seeks help from a local human rights lawyer, Annabel (Rachel McAdams) to avoid the authorities. The secretive German intelligence unit, led by Gunther (Hoffman) gets wind of Issa’s arrival and suspect he is trying to broker a deal with bank owner Brue (Willem Dafoe) in order to fund a terrorist group. In order to ascertain Issa’s intentions, Gunther’s band of spies must keep the elusive subject under constant surveillance.

The film is a slow-burner, steadily pulling the audience in. In fact, there is not one single shot fired in the film. Anton Corbijn, who directed the Ian Curtis biopic Control and the George Clooney vehicle The American, keeps his camera at a distance. There are some cute shots betraying Corbijn’s previous career as a photographer; an angular tower block lit only by a single light where a moody spy awaits. The edting by Claire Simpson is snappy and concise, and the film moves at a fair pace. The performances are all pretty solid; Hoffman is fine but unstretched by the grumpy, jaded Gunther, while Dafoe and McAdams are fairly convincing.

One thing that took me by surprise, though, was that Hoffman, Dafoe and McAdams are all actually German. Yes, they spoke a weird, broken language of Germanican. Who would have known! Seriously though, there is a question of why we still need to see these weird hybrids on screen. Sure, Hoffman and co. bring in the commercial clout, but as a piece of serious, ‘authentic’ film making, it looks and sounds ridiculous. It would have been nice to have seen the film performed in German, but then we would have to use subtitles, and who the fuck reads anything now anyway? While we are the on the subject of authenticity, the film also fell down in a few plot holes that for a John Le Carre adaptation felt strangely simplistic.

To reiterate, A Most Wanted Man is not a bad film, just a slightly disappointing one, and an unremarkable end to a remarkable career. The film ticks all the requisite boxes for a spy thriller: there is a hefty amount of atmosphere and suspense, and the audience is never left bored, yet there is something missing. For a director who has made his name for visuals rather than anything else, the film is oddly bland. There is no edge to the colour schemes. The story is intriguing rather than punchy, and you get the feeling that Le Carre has written better work. Finally, while the characters were solid and served the plot sufficiently, there was not enough invention or nuance to make them more than just cut out cliches.

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Is life just a series of events? Births, deaths, marriages, divorces, jobs, redundancies. Are these the barometers for life, the way in which we measure our existence on earth? Is this all it comes down to? Or are we forgetting something important? Experience. Feeling. Over the past few years I have been more and more drawn to films which celebrate the sensory experience of life rather than boil a story down to a series of happenings. Events can only tell you half the story; the emotions between the lines will linger longer in the memory than the basic details. Which brings me to Terrence Malick, to my mind the most evocative creator of moments working in cinema today.

His latest film, To the Wonder, is arguably his most adventurous proponent of this vision yet. While his earlier films, particularly Badlands, stuck to a fairly linear, conventional Hollywood structure, his films have gradually emerged in a looser, more improvisatory fashion, culminating in To the Wonder. Malick is notorious for changing things on set, rewriting dialogue as the inspiration comes to him and chopping and changing scenes and actors in the edit room. With To the Wonder, there was no solid script, just a set of sketches and notes to work with. The result is a free wheeling, unpredictable melodrama that no one else could have possibly made.

The story is deeply personal to Malick; Neil (Ben Affleck) embarks on a whirlwind romance with Marina (Olga Kurylenko) during a trip to Paris. The stoic Neil is drawn to Marina’s wildfire ways and seeks to bring her and her daughter back to live in his native Oklahoma. Once there the relationship begins to fizzle out, and Neil is drawn back to Jane (Rachel McAdams) his childhood flame. It is difficult to predict how far art imitates life in this case, but Malick spent sometime in Paris, eventually travelling back to settle in Texas. Malick’s previous film, The Tree of Life, was also highly personal, and it would not be outrageous to assume that the reclusive auteur is beginning to reveal a part of himself little seen to the public. With age he seems to be parting the curtains a little.

To the Wonder is unlike any film you will see this year, both in mainstream Hollywood or even the art house circles. It opens with camera phone shots of the newly born couple swirling around Paris in a daze, a blur of neon lights and stolen glances. Marina dances along trains, bridges, city streets, high on the energy of romance, while a rapt Neil follows in her wake. This is perhaps where Malick is at his best, demonstrating the vitality and good in life through sound and image. Regular DOP Emmanuel Lubezki has become an integral cog in Malick’s vision; his fluid, wandering camera capturing the two lovers in a dreamlike manner. Music also plays a huge part in conjuring feeling, and Hanan Townshend’s stirring strings elevate the images to a higher place.

Life details, issues, obstacles come in small snatches; how does Marina’s daughter feel about the move? What will Marina do when she gets there? Will they cope with the change? It is almost as if these are petty details in the whirlwind of love ensnaring the two characters. Once in Oklahoma, things start to change. Malick tells the story almost entirely through body language and landscape. Marina loses her lust for life, her wildness dimmed by the alien surroundings. Malick has often used his native Texan landscape to signal both rapture and despair. The empty suburban streets and golden wheat fields exuding a wistful poignancy; an opportunity for hope and a mournful foreboding.

One element that Malick has taken to new heights is the idea of movement. In The New World, and to some extent The Tree of Life, the main characters moved as if they were in a ballet, their ebbing emotions mirroring the direction of their feet.  Another talented American director, Hal Hartley, also demonstrated this technique in his films, getting his actors to circle each other like a choreographed performance. It brings a physicality and poetry to proceedings that To the Wonder uses to great effect.

There is no doubt that To the Wonder is a beautiful work that utilises cinema to its real nature, its real calling. There are certain moments where all the sensory elements collide to heartbreaking effect, and your whole body tenses in answer. Yet, Malick’s sixth film has its flaws. Although the film is fascinating and keeps on asking questions of the audience, it feels slight compared to some of his other works. The lack of a solid story hinders To the Wonder in a way that it didn’t in his previous films. By the time Neil and Marina’s relationship begins to fizzle, the tension that drove The New World or Days of Heaven ceases to exist. To the Wonder might actually be too personal a project.

Kurylenko captures Marina’s unpredictable nature brilliantly while showing an emotional depth; Affleck however suffers greatly. Never the most expressive of actors, his chisel jawed silence seems jarring compared to the film’s emotive, almost melodramatic style. Malick often manages to extract special performances from lesser acclaimed actors, but here Affleck could be considered perhaps the weakest lead in the director’s oeuvre. It doesn’t help that Neil’s motivation seems unclear. He seems to float along, unwilling to commit to anything and even the work subplot involving the contamination of soil falls by the wayside. Javier Bardem, playing the local priest, lends gravitas to a small but important role. His lonely, doubtful existence about his career path echoing Marina’s own struggle.

Thematically To the Wonder seems to follow the same strains as Malick’s previous films; rationality, intellectualism and pragmatism vs. spontaneity, feeling and real desire. The head vs. the heart. Like Jessica Chastain’s mother character in The Tree of Life, Marina’s character appears to symbolise a part of nature, while Neil represents the masculine opposite. The film also seems to be preoccupied by the notion of love, the conflict between personal love and a greater love for mankind. Malick shows love as a temperamental, fleeting force in our personal lives, but hints towards a higher universal form that Bardem’s priest is so desperately trying to locate.

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