BRIAN VINER: Risque subject gets the kid glove treatment in a drama that's too tame to truly seduce

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BRIAN VINER: Risque subject gets the kid glove treatment in a drama that's too tame to truly seduce

Summerland (Cinemas nationwide, 12A)Rating: Verdict: Sunday afternoon fodderLife With Music (Digital platforms, 12)Rating: Verdict: Sensitive charm

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Summerland (Cinemas nationwide, 12A)

Rating:

Verdict: Sunday afternoon fodder

Life With Music (Digital platforms, 12)

Rating:

Verdict: Sensitive charmer 

There is a certain kind of earnest but bland storytelling that always reminds me of those BBC Sunday afternoon serials I watched as a child, just before spaghetti hoops on thick buttery toast in front of The Golden Shot.

Summerland fits that template perfectly. There is a same-sex relationship at the heart of the story, so it could never have unfolded over four afternoons in 1973.

But it could now, especially as the homosexuality is addressed so coyly that for a while you wonder whether they are lovers at all.

Gemma Arterton is the same woman, Alice Lamb, 30-something years younger but just as irascible

Gemma Arterton is the same woman, Alice Lamb, 30-something years younger but just as irascible

Summerland, a cinematic debut for playwright and theatre director Jessica Swale, is intended for a family audience, hence the restraint. 

Even so, for a film set in wartime which addresses some mighty themes, including death, bereavement and loneliness, it feels as if it has been dusted clean of grit just a little too thoroughly.

We begin in 1975, with Penelope Wilton. She is a bad-tempered writer with wild hair tied back by a scarf that doesn’t quite have ‘lesbian’ stitched on it but might as well.

Moments later we are back in the same house on the Kent coast, during World War II. Gemma Arterton is the same woman, Alice Lamb, 30-something years younger but just as irascible. She especially hates children, it is quickly made clear with the kind of subtlety you might recall from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

So when she is forced — ‘we all have to do our bit, Miss Lamb’ — to house a London evacuee called Frank (Lucas Bond), whose mother works for ‘the ministry’ and whose father is a pilot, Alice is none too happy. 

She is a reclusive academic, studying pagan myths (the pre-Christians referred to their notion of an afterlife as ‘summerland’, hence the title), and can hardly contain her fury that a child interloper might distract her from her scholarship.

Summerland, a cinematic debut for playwright and theatre director Jessica Swale, is intended for a family audience, hence the restraint

Summerland, a cinematic debut for playwright and theatre director Jessica Swale, is intended for a family audience, hence the restraint

Only contain it she does, as Frank’s Enid Blyton wholesomeness begins to win her round. Moreover, his presence sends her drifting into wistful soft-focus reveries about the last person she shared her life with, a beauty called Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who eventually left because Alice couldn’t give her what she desired even more than Alice, namely children.

Could that be why Alice hates the little blighters so? Whatever, it’s a great relief to find her thawing. Arterton is a lovely actress but she’s nobody’s idea — except Swale’s, evidently — of a misanthropic hermit, terrorised by local scallywags who call her ‘a witch’. Tom Courtenay, by contrast, is everybody’s idea of the story’s kindly, bumbling headmaster.

However, the narrative strains credulity in several other ways. While lesbianism is handled with kid gloves, Vera’s colour and that of a few more minor characters isn’t handled at all. Race simply isn’t an issue in this filtered vision of Thirties and Forties England.

Even war rears its ugly head only when it suits the plot. Alice lives within sight of the white cliffs of Dover, yet not a single Messerschmitt or even Spitfire overhead ever interrupts the idyll.

Despite all these idiosyncrasies, Summerland deserves to find an appreciative audience. It has a faint echo of The Railway Children, which is never a bad thing. And I’m always happy to be reminded of spaghetti hoops on toast on Sunday afternoons.

Life With Music is another film for a Sunday afternoon, an intelligent, sensitive charmer gently powered by Patrick Stewart, who is perfectly cast as a brilliant, world-famous concert pianist called Sir Henry Cole. 

Sir Henry is making a comeback in New York after being knocked sideways off his piano stool by the sudden death of his wife.

Following several years out of the limelight, his gifts are unsullied but his emotional fragility becomes manifest as stage fright.

His long-time agent (Giancarlo Esposito) cannot really help him but the New Yorker’s winsome classical music critic Helen Morrison (Katie Holmes) can.

Sir Henry grants her an interview and gradually their friendship turns into a romance, which, given the 38-year age gap between Stewart and Holmes, might send you running from the room.

But actually it has been deftly done and is rather sweet.

Life With Music is another film for a Sunday afternoon, an intelligent, sensitive charmer gently powered by Patrick Stewart, who is perfectly cast as a brilliant, world-famous concert pianist called Sir Henry Cole

Life With Music is another film for a Sunday afternoon, an intelligent, sensitive charmer gently powered by Patrick Stewart, who is perfectly cast as a brilliant, world-famous concert pianist called Sir Henry Cole

Unhinged (Cinemas nationwide, 15)

Rating:

Verdict: A car crash

We have a favourite road-rage episode in our family. My sister-in-law, a cautious driver, was once making her way sedately along a main road in London, a routine 3mph below the speed limit, trying to ignore the man in the van behind her, who was beeping furiously.

Eventually she came to traffic lights where, to her horror, he drew alongside, even reversing slightly to get exactly level with her, and bellowed obscenities. 

When the lights changed, he hit the accelerator with a vengeance but had forgotten to change out of reverse gear, so screeched backwards into the car behind him while my sister-in-law pootled onward, clocking the wreckage in her rear-view mirror.

So there are great road-rage stories. Alas, Unhinged is not one of them. It stars a startlingly overweight Russell Crowe as a furious American psycho who terrorises a young mother (Caren Pistorius) after she has beeped at him and refused to apologise.

His campaign escalates wildly, leading to several murders, lots of frenzied violence and one of those resolutions you find only in really bad slasher films, when the survivors are sent smilingly on their way by benevolent cops, wisecracking as they go, even though in real life they would be traumatised half to death.  

It stars a startlingly overweight Russell Crowe as a furious American psycho who terrorises a young mother (Caren Pistorius) after she has beeped at him and refused to apologise

It stars a startlingly overweight Russell Crowe as a furious American psycho who terrorises a young mother (Caren Pistorius) after she has beeped at him and refused to apologise

Foreign treats, from fear in Argentina to dark days in Korea…

This is the third instalment of my 20 favourite foreign language films, with the top five to follow next week. All feedback gratefully received at [email protected]

10. El Secreto De Sus Ojos (2009)

I’ve given this its Spanish title so as not to confuse it with the inferior Hollywood remake, The Secret In Their Eyes. The Argentinian original is a belter, a really clever crime thriller, superbly acted, following the twists and turns of a 1974 murder case and its resolution 25 years later.

9. Loveless (2017)

This was the best movie I saw — high praise indeed because it was a good year — at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. It’s a superb, emotionally draining Russian drama by director Andrey Zvyagintsev (whose Leviathan is also in my top 20) about a couple in the throes of a bitter divorce whose only child, 12-year-old Alyosha, goes missing.

8. Les Diaboliques (1955)

In English, The Fiends. But I love the original French title and everything about this psychological horror-thriller starring Simone Signoret as a woman who conspires with her lover’s wife to kill him. It is said that Alfred Hitchcock tried but failed to buy the rights to the novel from which it is adapted. He couldn’t have done a better, more suspenseful job.

Diabolical plan: Simone Signoret

Diabolical plan: Simone Signoret

7. Volver (2006)

I haven’t enjoyed any of the great Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s films as much as this treasure featuring Penelope Cruz, a compelling picture with heavy themes such as death, loneliness and sexual abuse which nevertheless retains an often playful tone.

6. Parasite (2019)

This South Korean treat was the first foreign-language film to win a Best Picture Oscar. Bong Joon-ho’s glorious dark comedy about a poor family of engaging rascals inveigling their way into a wealthy household fully deserves the distinction.

Mummy’s just going into space

Proxima (in cinemas, 12A)

Rating:

The Vigil (in cinemas, 15)

Rating:

Make Up (Curzon Home Cinema, 15) 

Rating:

Last year’s feeble Lucy In The Sky starred Natalie Portman as a U.S. astronaut just back from a voyage and struggling to readjust to life on Earth.

Proxima, a much better film, flips the premise, with Eva Green (below) as a French astronaut, Sarah, preparing for a year-long mission on the International Space Station and trying to juggle this with the demands of motherhood.

‘I don’t get maths,’ wails her daughter Stella (Zelie Boulant-Lemesle) down the phone, even as Sarah floats in a simulated space chamber.

Alice Winocour’s film cleverly offers insights into the challenges faced by many working mums. The added complication is that Sarah is about to set off on an expedition from which she may not return, with Stella all too aware of the perils she faces.

If that sounds contrived, it’s really not. Their situation feels utterly plausible, with Matt Dillon’s portrayal of the mission leader as an unreconstructed sexist the only slightly clunky note. Otherwise, this is a film brimming with modern-day relevance, and both Green and young Boulant-Lemesle are terrific.

Alice Winocour¿s film cleverly offers insights into the challenges faced by many working mums

Alice Winocour’s film cleverly offers insights into the challenges faced by many working mums

The Vigil is a horror film set in Brooklyn using the Orthodox Jewish tradition of the ‘shomer’, a man who watches over the recently dead before their burial, as an effective springboard for the scares. There’s not too much originality to the story beyond that but it’s genuinely creepy, well-acted and tautly written and directed by debutant Keith Thomas.

Make Up is by Claire Oakley, a maker of short films here writing and directing a feature-length picture for the first time. It’s a quirky psychological not-quite-thriller, set in a Cornwall caravan park out of season, which may owe something to Nic Roeg’s 1973 classic Don’t Look Now.

Molly Windsor is excellent as Ruth, a teenager who has arrived to spend time with her boyfriend (Joseph Quinn), only to become fixated by what she thinks are telltale strands of red hair on his clothes.  

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