THE SENSE OF AN ENDING: you can’t revisit the past and guarantee closure

Jim Broadbent in THE SENSE OF AN ENDING
Jim Broadbent in THE SENSE OF AN ENDING

The veteran actor Jim Broadbent paints a remarkable portrait of Tony, the main character in the British drama The Sense of an Ending, and he makes it look easy. Retired and long-divorced, Tony is entirely comfortable is a solitary life that he has chosen, perhaps not voluntarily, by being so damn selfish and curmudgeonly. In some very funny moments, we learn that he does not suffer fools. An incident revives a brief period of passion in his youth, and he can’t let it go (although we know that he really should). As he plunges on, he unpeels the mystery, layer by layer, and discovers more emotional turmoil than he is prepared to deal with. He learns that we cannot always find closure, especially if it depends on the feelings of others and acts and words with cannot be undone.

As good as Broadbent is, the best scenes are with Tony’s ex-wife (Harriet Walker – who really shines in this film) and the romantic interest of his youth (the irreplaceable Charlotte Rampling).

You are forgiven if, after reading a capsule or watching the trailer, you think that The Sense of an Ending is another 45 Years; after all both focus on a retired British gentleman whose life is rocked by an unexpected call or letter and both feature stunning performances by Charlotte Rampling. But it is not. 45 Years meditates on the power and durability of memories and then shifts into a study of relationships; we see intimacy without the sharing of all truths, and see how the truth can be toxic and destructive. In contrast, The Sense of an Ending explores how emotional detachment is very protective, and what happens when one ventures into emotional vulnerability. 45 Years was Charlotte Rampling’s movie, while she has only a couple of brief, although hard-hitting, scenes in The Sense of an Ending.

The Sense of an Ending played at Cinequest before its theatrical release and was well-received by the audience. I like The Sense of an Ending more than does the critical consensus, perhaps because it’s the best new movie widely released in the Bay Area this week.

Cloud Atlas: more may not be better, but more is fun

The filmmakers of Cloud Atlas clearly believe that more is better.  They give us not one, not two – but six stories spanning six centuries. They give us lots of movie stars: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant and more.  The actors each play multiple roles, with Hanks, Berry, Weaving and Sturgess playing at least six each – sometimes playing characters of different genders and different races.  There are costume dramas on the high seas of the 1840s and in 1930s England, plus two sci-fi settings – one recalling the high-tech, high-speed Tron and also a post-apocalyptic tribal future.   There are even two references to the sci-fi cult classic Soylent GreenCloud Atlas even had three directors.

Whew.

The six story lines are threaded together so we follow them until all six climax in the final hectic thirty minutes.  The six stories are each a series of cliff hangers.  As a character in one story falls into peril, the screenplay jumps to another thread, and on and on.

As it manically jumps from story to story, Cloud Atlas touches upon some Big Themes (good and evil, kindness and control, freedom, reincarnation), and we get the brush strokes of a New Agey theology (as if the world needs another theology).  This is where Cloud Atlas gets fuzzy.   Fortunately, the movie is so rapidly paced, that it never gets pretentious as we jump from story to story.

Is Cloud Atlas fun to watch?  Yes, there’s just too much fast-paced action going on, too much eye candy and too many engaging actors for Cloud Atlas to fail the fun test.  Is Cloud Atlas a great movie?  No, there just isn’t enough coherent substance in there to hook us emotionally.  Is it a Must See?  No.  Would I see it again?  No, but I’m glad I saw it once.

The Iron Lady: a magnificent Streep amid a middling story

Meryl Streep is the finest actress of our lifetimes, a fact reemphasized by her performance in The Iron Lady.  Streep plays two Margaret Thatchers.  In flashbacks, she plays Thatcher in her prime –  seizing power and wielding it with complete confidence and absolutely without a nano whit of mercy.  She also plays today’s elderly Thatcher, doddering on the verge of dementia.  Streep is magnificent, which might be enough reason to see the movie.

It’s also always a pleasure to watch Jim Broadbent, and he teams with Streep as Thatcher’s hubbie.  Alexandra Roach plays a third and younger Thatcher – forming herself in her early twenties.  The fine actor Nicholas Farrell is also quite good as one of Thatcher’s mentors.

My problem is with the story.  Now I’m no expert on Thatcher, although I have loathed her from afar for decades.  To me, the most interesting aspect of Thatcher was her certitude – the absolutely deep and profound belief that she was always right and the will to impose her direction on everyone else.  When her actions were creating widespread pain and she was hated (really, really hated) by a large percentage of her own people, why did she not doubt herself for a moment?  The Iron Lady explains her conservatism as coming from her father, but leaves her certitude unexamined.

Instead, The Iron Lady‘s screenplay chooses to focus on her feminism, battling to make her way in an arena filled with men especially eager not to relinquish any power to her.  (Her feminism seems to be entirely in practice, not theory, as she battles for HER due, but not to make the way easier for other women, whom she probably expects to pull themselves up by their own pumps.)

A lot of screen time is also devoted to her aged decline, which gives good fodder to Streep, but is not very important to understanding her career.

On the other hand, The Iron Lady does depict the very personal impact of the IRA’s campaign against her, with an assassination attempt and the killing of a close colleague.  It also gives us an unsparing look at her bullying of friends and allies, which, of course, does not encourage loyalty.  And there are telling glimpses into her family life, especially her longtime marriage.

But on the whole, The Iron Lady is long on Streep and short on understanding what made Margaret Thatcher the pivotal political leader that she was.

DVD of the Week: Another Year

Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies, Vera Drake) has brought us another brilliant observation of the human condition, and asks why some people find contentment and others just cannot.  The film observes a year in the life of a happily married couple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen).  They generously host their friends and family; the couple (and we the audience)  pick up insights about the visitors – variously scarred by unhappy circumstance, cluelessness and self-destructiveness.

Mike Leigh may be the cinema’s best director of actors, and Another Year is filled with excellent performances, especially Broadbent and Sheen, David Bradley and Peter Wight. The wonderful Imelda Staunton drops in with a searing cameo at the beginning of the film.  But Lesley Manville has the flashiest role – and gives the most remarkable performance – as a woman whose long trail of bad choices hasn’t left her with many options for a happy life.

Another Year is one of Leigh’s best, and on my list of Best Movies of 2010.

Another Year

Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies, Vera Drake) has brought us another brilliant observation of the human condition, and asks why some people find contentment and others just cannot.  The film observes a year in the life of a happily married couple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen).  They generously host their friends and family; the couple (and we the audience)  pick up insights about the visitors – variously scarred by unhappy circumstance, cluelessness and self-destructiveness.

Mike Leigh may be the cinema’s best director of actors, and Another Year is filled with excellent performances, especially Broadbent and Sheen, David Bradley and Peter Wight. The wonderful Imelda Staunton drops in with a searing cameo at the beginning of the film.  But Lesley Manville has the flashiest role – and gives the most remarkable performance – as a woman whose long trail of bad choices hasn’t left her with many options for a happy life.

Another Year is one of Leigh’s best.

The latest from Mike Leigh

This month, British filmmaker Mike Leigh delivers what could be one of the best films of the year, Another Year.  Leigh has been nominated for four screenwriting Oscars and two directing Oscars, and is best known in the US for art house favorites Happy-Go-Lucky, Vera Drake, Secrets and Lies,  Topsy-Turvy and Career Girls.

Leigh is known for outlining a story, rather than writing a word-for-word script.  He then develops the scenes and dialogue with his actors in rehearsal.  He is especially notable for directing actresses to Best Actress recognition.   Sally Hawkins won a Golden Globe for Happy-Go-Lucky.  Imelda Staunton was Oscar-nominated for Vera Drake, as was Brenda Blythen for Secrets and Lies.

In my opinion, Leigh’s masterpiece is his 1999 Secrets and Lies.

Another Year was uniformly celebrated at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The film observes a year in the life of a happily married couple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen).  They and we pick up insights about themselves and their family and friends.