The Oscars are almost upon us. The BAFTA nominations were announced yesterday, the Golden Globes are on Sunday and the cinemas are full of beautifully framed suffering and gurning, which will shortly give way to the usual fare of explosions and solid jawlines.

In the last week I’ve crammed in three movies, at least of two of which I confidently expect to see in the Best Picture nominees come 15 January, all three of which I shall review here.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies


After the slightly tedious An Unexpected Journey and the unexpectedly elegant and engaging The Desolation of Smaug, Peter Jackson’s sixth and final Middle Earth film is a rather ho-hum affair. Beginning almost immediately where the previous film left off (almost as if the material had been shot without anyone imagining there would a break of a year in between), the focus is all on Luke Evans’ anodyne Bard the Bowman who proceeds to almost immediately slay the fiery Smaug in exactly the way he said he would.

This brutally efficient, by-the-numbers style is the watchword for most of the film. After Gandalf is finally released from his “holding pattern” at Dol Guldur and after sufficient chat to bulk the thing up to a reasonable running time, the titular battle finally gets underway. Bonkers dwarf-king Billy Connolly is a bit of a treat and Richard Armitage’s mano-a-mano show-down with Azog works well, but the gigantic battle scenes contribute nothing we haven’t seen before and crucially none of the character drama really resonates, with Thorin’s re-emergence from “dragon sickness” disposed of in a few minutes with little more than a CGI pool of gold and a furrowed brow.

What’s particular disappointing is how little Martin Freeman gets to do. His performance was the saving grace of part one, the heart and soul of part two and his side-lining in the climactic instalment leaves the film without a happy centre. Still, I’d rather be him than, say, James Nesbitt who I swear gets two lines in the whole thing. A bit more Freeman and a lot less clumsy comic relief from Ryan Gage’s Alfrid Lickspittle would have gone a long way.



One of the most bracing and exciting films I’ve seen in a very long time, Birdman deserves all the praise which is being heaped upon it. In a neat bit of self-referential casting, Michael Keaton leads as Riggan Thompson, Hollywood actor once well-known for his starring role in a series of extravagant super-hero movies, now attempting to show snooty Broadway theatre-goers that he is still relevant, talented and vital with a self-penned, self-directed adaptation of a (real) Raymond Carver story starring himself.

He is joined on-stage by his girlfriend Andrea Riseborough, a Broadway first-timer (Naomi Watts) and volatile supposed genius Ed Norton, gleefully following in Dustin Hoffman’s footsteps by playing up to his reputation as a difficult and demanding star. What sets this tale of desperation and personal need for fulfilment apart from the crowd is its casual attitude towards reality and the innovative shooting style deployed by director Alejandro González Iñárritu (that’s easy for you to say). Riggan is haunted by the voice of his musclebound alter-ego and appears to be able to – or believes himself to be able to – or fantasies that he is able to – alter reality with a single thought. Our first shot of him is floating in mid-air in the lotus position. He later apparently causes a light to fall on a recalcitrant fellow actor and later visits all manner of physical impossibilities on himself and objects around him.

While we watch these fantastic actors explore these great characters in this pressure cooker situation (I haven’t even mentioned brilliantly restrained Zach Galifianakis, an ice cold turn from Lindsay Duncan and a delightful cameo from Amy Ryan), Iñárritu’s camera swoops and circles and darts and dollies and never, ever (apparently) cuts.

The discipline of shooting the entire movie in a single take (although not in continuous time) makes it even harder to be certain about what is real and what is not, but this carefully calibrated ambiguity locates us inside Riggan’s head, as the camera crawls over Keaton’s panicky face, its sharp Batman contours now crinkled with a network of fine lines.

It’s not a perfect movie. I’ve had about enough of the cliché of real-acting-is-doing-it-for-real so when Norton starts drinking real gin on stage I rolled my eyes a bit – although, to be fair this is certainly on-theme. What’s much less satisfactory is Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter who adds very little to proceedings, and when she and Norton start playing Truth or Dare on a balcony, the whole movie suddenly descends into after school special faux-profundity.

For the rest of its running time, however, the film remains bracingly original, constantly kept me guessing and even managed to pull off an obscure ending which doesn’t seem like a cop-out (it also includes a wonderful visual pun). Hardly stands a chance of getting the big prize, but surely it must be nominated – unlike the amazing percussion score by Antonio Sánchez which the Academy won’t even consider on the entirely spurious basis that the movie also includes some classical music.

The Theory of Everything


I don’t really like biopics. They’re very, very hard to pull off. Most non-biopic movies cover relatively short spans of time and those that attempt to work over longer periods need a great deal of discipline to find a central theme and hang on to it. When you are telling a true story of somebody’s life, there’s an apparent need not to leave anything out, so most biopics go from cradle to grave, with the result that we whip through key incidents and the overall effect is like reading a Wikipedia entry rather than being caught up in the reality of somebody’s life. Chaplin is possibly the worst example of this tendancy, The Social Network a particularly elegant way around the problem.

The Theory of Everything is blessed with an absolutely outstanding performance by Eddie Redmayne. Physically contorting himself like no other actor since Daniel Day-Lewis, he doesn’t so much impersonate Hawking as possess him. It’s sensitive, compassionate, funny, detailed, heartfelt and will surely win him Best Actor this year. It’s also a performance which the rest of the movie entirely squanders.

Telling the story of Hawking’s life means tackling at least three different narratives. The brilliant mind grappling with impossible problems of reality; the love story between young academics who don’t expect their marriage to last more than a few years; and the triumph-over-adversity story of a vital young man suddenly crippled by a life-threatening illness. It’s hard to pick just one of these and so my hope going in was that scriptwriter Anthony McCarten and director James Marsh would find a way of braiding these strands together which would somehow elevate all three of them.

In practice, the first story is all but ignored. There is maybe two minutes of science in the whole thing, most hilariously when a troupe of Cambridge post-graduates make a road trip to hear Christian McKay’s Roger Penrose deliver a lecture which would be elementary to a GCSE physics class, based on the thirty seconds we are allowed to hear. The life-threatening illness, brilliantly realised by Redmayne, is often the main focus but this is the least interesting strand being over-familiar in general from many, many similar movies and TV movies prior to this, but also because the details of Hawking’s condition are so well known.

And so, the love story forms the bulk of the movie, which is when the frantic skipping from scene to scene does the movie so few favours. Everything is trivial, glib, tick that box and move on. Why do we have to hear about Hawking bluffing his way through his viva at Oxford instead of taking the time to let that scene play out? Why do we jump from his first date with Jane to their wedding in the space of about ten minutes? Why do we never get a sense of who these two people are to each other, let alone as a couple? Hawking’s family is drawn efficiently and vividly, thanks in part to a lovely turn by Simon McBurney as his dad, but elsewhere the writer seems to be hoping that the cast will fill in the gaps and the cast seem to be hoping that the editing will fill in the gaps and the director seems to be hoping that enough stirring music will see him through.

How is it that a single film manages to be simultaneously so pedantic and yet also so coy? When we need to introduce possible cuckoo-in-the-nest Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox, instantly forgettable), we can’t just show him giving piano lessons to one of the Hawking offspring, we first have to wheel in Emily Watson as Jane’s mum to laboriously explain to her that singing in the church choir is a Good Idea, then we have to have Jane creep mouse-like into the church just as the singing practice is conveniently finishing, then we have to have a lumpen conversation between the two of them – and so we exchange one telling, detailed, measured scene which would bring verisimilitude and texture to the story for three box-ticking snippets instead.

And yet at the same time, the film keeps eliding what’s actually interesting. The Hawkings’ sex life is included only by having Stephen and Jane embrace and then a cut to Eddie Redmayne cuddling a baby – not once but three times. And the potentially fascinating debates about the role of God in the universe are reduced to two quick mentions and one dinner table conversation in which C of E Jane is largely side-lined. That’s the other major problem with this film. Based on a book by Jane Hawking, it fails to realise that the story can’t be what is it like to be Stephen Hawking?, that’s largely unknowable in any case. But it could be what is it like to be married to Stephen Hawking? except that the filmmakers can’t bring themselves to cut away from their big-ticket item, the floppy haired one in the wheel-chair.

One particularly striking example is the diagnosis sequence. Hawking stumbles in the college quad, is taken to hospital where they perform a variety of tests and the young man is given his grim diagnosis. He returns to Cambridge and breaks the news to his bunk-mate Brian but when his then-girlfriend Jane tries to see him he refuses to talk to her. She is eventually given the news by Brian in a pub (we are not permitted to hear the dialogue).

But whose story is this? By never tackling this question, the movie is only ever able to give us the animated Wikipedia version, while steadfastly ignoring the colossally obvious point that every single fucking movie-goer is going to know the diagnosis before the characters do. If they had had the wit, the perspicacity – the fucking balls – to realise that this was Jane’s story, the whole sequence could have been played from her point of view. Her boyfriend has a mysterious fall in the quad but instead of just being patched up by the college nurse, he is taken away in an ambulance. In this pre-mobile phone age, she can’t get any information from the hospital, no matter how often she calls from the payphone at the bottom of her staircase. When Stephen eventually returns, apparently fit and healthy, he barricades himself in his room and refuses to talk to her. Imagine the confusion, the horror, the anger – and of course the ghastly dramatic irony because we, the audience, know all too well what’s coming.

What compounds all of these structural problems is just how fucking saintly everybody is. Hawking is unfailingly charming, funny, self-effacing and good natured – with the aforementioned brief strop the only moment where his disposition is anything less than sunny. Felicity Jones’s doe-eyed Jane is warm, supportive, patient, wise and deadeningly sincere, only leaving Hawking when he’s found flirty Maxine Peake to pal about with instead, and Charlie Cox’s Jonathan is essentially a tweedy martyr, tediously putting everyone else’s feelings ahead of his own. Where’s the vinegar? Where’s the tension? Where, for pity’s sake is the story?

At the fairly full cinema we saw this in, I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a damp eye in the house. When a film dealing with a wheelchair bound genius whose marriage is falling apart can’t even be bothered to be mawkishly sentimental, let alone attain any real insight, power or emotion, you know it’s really in trouble. Lazy, boring and trite, if it were not for Eddie Redmayne, this would have been utterly ghastly. As it is, it’s just dull.

Full Marx
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