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Movie archaeologists have been presented as dynamic adventurers, such as Indiana Jones and Lara Croft. It is, therefore, refreshing to see an archaeologist who is quiet, subdued and very careful, played by that most diffident of English gents, Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes is Basil Brown, employed by Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) in 1938 to excavate a mound on her Suffolk land, a mound that proves to be of historical significance. Director Simon Stone, working from Moira Buffini’s adaptation of John Preston’s novel, follows the characters at an intimate level, allowing us to appreciate the close bond that Basil and Edith, as well as Edith’s son Robert (Archie Barnes), share with the very earth that they interact with. This bond is contrasted with other attitudes to the artefacts, and also interwoven with confrontations that the characters make with serious illness, questions of sexuality and the approaching drums of war. The end result is an exquisite and melancholy love letter to the English countryside, that also meditates upon our relationships with time and with history.
Although the cinema can offer tremendous experiences, sometimes there is a misfire. 2018 had much that delighted but also some turkeys. Thankfully, there were few serious stinkers, and it might be fair to say that no film is completely without merit so long as it is well lit, so you can see what’s going on. That said, there were some films in 2018 that had me variously shaking my head, silently shouting at the scream and coming out afterwards wondering how it all went so wrong.
As mentioned in my last post, The Little Stranger was underwhelming. Although director Lenny Abrahamson captured a very British sense of reserve, the film failed to generate much tension or societal satire. A bigger disappointment was Suspiria, Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the Dario Argento classic. A great power of cinema is to show rather than tell, and Suspiria told too much, was far too long and overwritten to a tedious degree. Horror maestro Eli Roth made an effort at family fare with The House with A Clock in Its Walls. Despite the winning combination of Jack Black and Cate Blanchett, THWACIIW was flat and laboured, offering only passing enjoyment.
As is par for the course these days, 2018 offered various superhero films, and while some of them were brilliant (watch this space), others demonstrated the pitfalls of the genre. Venom was a wasted opportunity that lost its potential in chaotic incoherence, and while I didn’t hate Aquaman, it had a lot of soggy moments. Still, not everything can entertain to Infinity…
Computer based movies proved a less than inspiring source in 2018, as Searching took an interesting premise but stretched it beyond credibility. Documenting and dramatising lives lived through technological devices has significant potential, but Searching took the conceit too far in terms of its timeframe and reasons (or lack thereof) for the material to appear on screen. On the adaptation front, Tomb Raider was an improvement over the previous efforts, offering a more grounded approach to the adventures of Lara Croft. Nonetheless, it was still a disappointment since everything it offered had been done before and better. Speaking of which, Sicario 2: Soldado proved a poor follow-up to the 2015 original. Stefano Sollima’s overreliance on a crashing score and a lack of nihilism made this a weak and ultimately ineffective thriller, despite the promise of its genre and evocative setting.
Although there were few stinkers in 2018, that doesn’t mean there weren’t any. The Equalizer 2 was a huge disappointment after the pleasant surprise of the 2014 original. When I saw it, one of my viewing companions actually fell asleep. He said he would not have dozed off if he had been less tired, but would have stayed awake if the film had been more engaging. It is easy to see his point, as the disparate storylines, vague characterisation and pedestrian direction made this a seriously unequal sequel.
The worst offering of the year though, just as it was half way through the year, was Red Sparrow. Everything about this said I would like it: a genre I love, proven directorial chops, great cast, genuine commitment to being unflinchingly brutal. Yet the result was laboured, the nastiness at times gratuitous and the film as a whole deeply boring. It was a cinematic experience that I spent waiting for the film to get good, something to kick in, give me a twist that carried dramatic weight, draw me into the scenes of torture or abuse, and it failed on pretty much all fronts. It wasn’t a total disaster, since there was some moody lighting at times, but the film proved to be more turkey than sparrow.
A bike chase through London streets. A foot chase through a Hong Kong marina. A boat caught in a storm at sea. Various encounters with armed men. Puzzles to open doorways and collapsing caves. Movie set pieces or video game challenges? In the case of Tomb Raider, both, as Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) takes on these obstacles that play out much like stages to a video game, while director Roar Uthaug renders these sequences with visceral thrills and gritty heft. The combined efforts of director and star in relation to these sequences are the film’s major strengths, as the viewer can feel the impact and lurch of the action while Lara herself is engagingly human and vulnerable, never coming across as a cypher who can regenerate to try the level again. Vikander is a hugely likeable lead, combining convincing physicality with relatable naivety, traits that are balanced with resourcefulness and a talent for swift adaptation. Less compelling is her backstory, as writers Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Alastair Siddons and Evan Daugherty give her a rather hackneyed daddy’s girl identity that threatens to overwhelm the potential for progressive gender representation. Nothing is made of the gender elements here: Lara’s agency and ability is not contrasted with that of her male counterparts and there is no romantic subplot. This is pleasing because, as in Rogue One, Wonder Woman, Atomic Blonde, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, a female protagonist of agency is presented as perfectly natural, rather than being made into a cause. Unlike those earlier films, Lara’s motivation is simply to find her father, while the film also fails an easy opportunity to pass the Bechdel Test. While both the action and the archaeology would earn a nod from Indiana Jones, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done better elsewhere.