I expected to have a lot more to say about Julian Schnabel's Miral, especially since the director has been flirting with Oscar success ever since his 2000* movie, Before Night Falls!. However, this, his follow-up to the acclaimed The Diving Bell And The Butterfly is simply dreadful, and I'd rather not dwell on it. It's a film so obsessed with being about Big Important Stuff that it forgets all the important little stuff – er, like characters and good writing – and, as a result, it's a chore to sit through. Beginning in 1947 and spanning so many decades it may well still be going on in my absence, it tells the story of an orphanage in Jerusalem that is founded to house the dispossessed Palestinian children who are the casualties of the war between the state of Israel and its enemies.
The orphanage is founded by a local philanthropist (Hiam Abbas), an actress of great subtlety and power who here is reduced to such a succession of big, bad grey wigs and even bigger, badder Dame Edna glasses that by the end of the film she looks more like Martin Lawrence in Big Momma's House than any kind of peace-process heroine. Around her, the script is so wretched that anyone even daring to act is on a hiding to nothing (a terrorist who has been jailed for trying to bomb a public cinema recalls, casually, “I am a woman. It was easy”). The draw of the film, for me, was Slumdog's Freida Pinto, who plays the title character, a girl at the orphanage who grows up to join the fight for Palestinian rights, and advance word was that her acting in it was a revelation. The only revelation for me, though, was that Schnabel must have such a tin ear for dialogue that he didn't notice several major lapses of accent throughout, which didn't add much to what was already a rather blank performance. In all, Miral was a real shame; the great Middle Eastern message movie has yet to be made, and I hope this turgid drama doesn't put anyone else off from trying.
And so to something worthwhile, and that something is Somewhere, the lovely new film from Sofia Coppola. It's very much of a piece with her signature film, Lost In Translation, which is kind of a coincidence since Darren Aronofsky's film here, Black Swan, also carries echoes of his keynote film, The Wrestler. (He told me yesterday, only half joking, that he considers the two movies a diptych and can't wait for the first arthouse cinemas to programme them on a double bill.) However, Somewhere dovetails with LIT in a different way, since it tells a similar story from a different angle. In some ways, its lead character, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), is a younger version of Bob Harris, a 30-something Hollywood star who has become a supporting actor in his own biopic.
The start of the movie is an indication of what's to come; slightly reminiscent of the beginning of The Brown Bunny (a movie I – unironically – like, by the way), with a sleek black sports car doing endless circuits on what seems to be a desolate test track. Finally, Dorff gets out of the car and just stands there, blankly. Cue credits and cut to the Chateau Mamont, where Monaco has been living. As Coppola's sparse, economic first 15 minutes will prove, Johnny is on the crest of a burnout, and his life is vacant. His days are organised by a PA we never see, who sends him to interviews, make-up tests and even to Milan, where he is the bemused star guest on a berserk Italian variety show. And when Johnny's not working – or sort of working, since we never see him on a film set – he's on the prowl. Johnny finds women everywhere, and he never has to try too hard.
The trailer is a pretty fair representation of the areas the film covers, but not the tone of it. What surprised me is how Elle Fanning's character, Cleo, is introduced. Advance word suggested that this would be a film about a father bonding with the daughter he never knew (which is kind of true), but there's no sentimental “Daddy??!” scene. Instead, Cleo is simply dropped off at the Marmont for what is obviously another of her sporadic visits, only this time, her mother is about to leave Cleo with Johnny for a lot longer than usual while she takes some time out for herself. Coppola keeps these scenes beautifully light, preferring to pick out small details than dwell on major dialogue scenes, and in this way, the characters emerge quite organically; we see Johnny and Cleo playing Guitar Hero together, but it's Johnny's brother who really talks to her and takes an interest in her life. That's not to say Johnny is an especially bad father, just an unmotivated one, as evidenced in a cute scene where Cleo tells him about her new book, which is never named but clearly Twilight.
Fans of LIT, and I mean serious fans, will eat this movie up. It's more photographic than the latter, and Coppola even flirts with inexpertise: frames are often incomplete or weirdly cropped, and in one of my favourite scenes, two pole-dancing sisters are shot in such a way that it seems the film's racking has slipped. But LIT lightweights may be tested by the film's slower moments, and there's also the question of its antihero. All of Coppola's films to date have, to lesser and greater degrees, been focused on children of privilege (Marie Antoinette being the ne plus ultra), and some audiences may struggle with finding sympathy for Johnny and his zombiefied state of spoil-brat ennui. But if you roll with it, Somewhere is a rich and sophisticated film that draws its world so deftly it's easy to forget it isn't ours. The downside of this is that Somewhere is so low-key, its core cast may get overlooked come awards season: Dorff is effortless as the dozy lothario, and Fanning gives a refreshingly reined-in child performance as the daughter who, in some ways, is older than her father. But nobody will overlook its director. This is definitely Coppola's film, a familiar but still studied and affecting piece that functions nicely as a character study but ever better as a piece of art.
* Yes, this originally said "debut", because I wrote this in a wifi-free press room, spent half an hour trying to post the damn thing in a cafe, realised my mistake several hours later, and have only now had the chance to get online to correct it. It's odd that I should have forgotten Basquiat, because I reviewewed it on release (not for Empire), and that review was the source of my nickname Damo...