Toronto 2013: Starred Up, Belle, The Invisible Woman, Dom Hemingway, The Double
Posted on Friday September 13, 2013, 17:14 by Damon Wise in Words From The Wise
It was an incredibly strong TIFF for British films this year, my personal favourite being David Mackenzie's Starred Up (pictured), a harsh prison drama in the vein of Scum. I've followed Mackenzie's career for a while now and considered him to be a director who maybe hasn't quite reached his full potential yet. But even with that in mind, I could never have imagined him making anything quite as full-on and potent as this, a very singular and sustained piece of work that may not hit big with a mainstream audience but will certainly raise both the director's profile and that of his charismatic young star, Jack O'Connell, formerly from the parish of Skins.
It begins with new inmate Eric (O'Connell) being transferred from a young offenders' institution to adult prison. As per the title, Eric is “starred up”, which means his file is marked on account of his violent behaviour, and he arrives as he means to go on: self-contained and unafraid, lashing out at men twice his size. Inside, Eric is the new boy, at the mercy of the sordid prison underworld, but he refuses to be cowed. Someone who takes an interest in Eric is hardened con Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), a key player in the upper echelons of criminal society. We soon find out why: Neville is Eric's father, a man every bit as violent and explosive as his son.
Starred Up gripped me from start to finish, and I had to wonder how much of the dialogue the Toronto audience was catching, since it features such charming mumbled bon mots as, “Don't fackin' mug me off, you cant.” But the film's power is that, much like 12 Years A Slave, it is an incredibly immersive experience – perhaps a little far-fetched by the end – that builds incrementally around its two very capable leading men. At this point it's worth singling out supporting player Rupert Friend for his role as an unpaid social worker who tries to reach out to Eric; it's a tough part to play, but Friend gives it some grounding, and there is never a sense of Good Samaritan cliché.
At the opposite end of the spectrum we have Amma Asante's Belle, a lovely, female-centric romance that completely reinvents the period movie in a way that will resound for quite some time. It tells the story of Elizabeth Dido Belle, an illegitimate child fathered by English nobleman John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) with an African slave. Facing up to his parental duties, Lindsay adopts the girl and takes her home, where he places her in the care of his uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), who is the Lord Chief Justice of England – the highest judge in the land. There, Dido grows up in luxury, unaware of the outside world until a conversation with Lord Mansfield's new student alerts her to the existence of slavery, notably a court case involving the mass killing of slaves aboard a trading ship.
Though it has serious intent, Assante's film is nevertheless light where it needs to be, with a sparkling cast of women who get to run free with the film's best and wittiest dialogue. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays the very versatile Dido, pretty and coquettish when she needs to be but slowly developing a will of steel. But Asante's masterstroke is not to make her colour the only issue; instead, like all the other characters in this world of status and dowries, Dido is trying not to go under, and in the social stakes she is surprisingly high in the pecking order. That we never feel sorry for her is the film's key achievement, and not only has Assante made a Jane Austen drama for all the audiences that ever felt excluded from this corseted world of white privilege, she has done so in a way that few will really notice. What matters is whether Dido will get what she wants – an identity that integrates her background and breeding – and we root for her every single step of the way.
Being another period movie, handled by the eminently capable Ralph Fiennes, The Invisible Woman seemed a certain hit, but I came away somewhat underwhelmed. Written by Abi Morgan, it tells the story of Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), a teenage actress who catches the eye of celebrated novelist Charles Dickens when she agrees to take part in one of his plays. Nelly is not a good actress, but Dickens continues to fête her, finally revealing his true feelings for her after dispensing with his plain, frumpy wife. All this takes quite a while to emerge, and though the film really should be about Nelly, who is treated rather shabbily by Dickens, Fiennes can't help but be sidetracked by his own performance, giving the author a smile and a twinkle that ensures we never come down too heavily on him. But by the end I wan't too involved in either of them; as a piece of history, it is informative and beautifully recreated, but as drama it really doesn't tell us very much at all.
Dom Hemingway came away from TIFF with mixed reviews, but I liked it. No doubt it will sail into choppy waters when it is released here, mostly for raising the dread spectre of the gorblimey British gangster film, but there's plenty for the open-minded to enjoy. Jude Law stars as the title character, a corpulent con we see getting a blowjob in prison prior to being released after 12 years in chokey. Once outside, Dom hooks up with his seedy old partner in crime Dickie Green (Richard E Grant), and the pair make plans to visit the south of France, where they will pay a visit to Mr Big (Demian Bichir), who intends to reward Dom for his 12 years of silence. Needless to say, there is an upset, leaving Dom broke and angry, but though the film then becomes a mission-movie (in the sense that Dom wants to get what's his), Richard (The Matador) Shepard's latest feature is really a picaresque black comedy that rolls even as it punches.
Debit-wise, the film gets into Lock, Stock territory towards the end, with an iffy subplot involving a safecracking challenge, and it's a shame that Grant's hilarious supporting turn never really develops much beyond sidekick. But Law is surprisingly forceful as the bullish, sarcastic Dom, a kind of Borstal-born street artist, the ne'er-do-well underdog that howls at the moon. Even if you find his journey less than captivating, it's hard not to be impressed by the strength of Law's conviction.
By the same standards, The Double just about passed muster for me, pairing the surreal and the absurd (the two are NOT the same thing) in a twisted fable that, at its best, recalls the painterly nightmares of René Magritte and, at its weakest, the daft dystopias of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. At its core we find a pair of fine, nervy performances from Jesse Eisenberg as Simon James, a lowly, introverted bureaucrat whose life is changed with the sudden appearance of his lookalike, the outgoing but calculating James Simon. James enters Simon's life and immediately starts to steal it piece by piece, taking both his job and the woman he worships from afar (Mia Wasikowska).
It takes a while to build a head of steam, but when the two Eisenbergs are on screen together Richard Ayoade's second feature really does capture a gut-wrenching feeling of existential dread. That he has laced the film with most of the key players from his debut, Submarine, somewhat distracts from this, and it might sound strange to say so but the film works best when it is not gunning for laughs. It reminded me a little of Crispin Glover's Bartleby, and it has that film's equally eccentric, skewed sense of universe, a dream about madness in which, ironically, the only thing that isn't mad is the madman dreaming it. The technical elements are excellent in this respect, painting an otherly world that suits such nonsense, but I didn't feel grabbed by it. Still, it's a bold move for Ayoade, and suggests that he may yet find a bright future in serious drama.