DVD Movie Review: The Devils (1971)

THE-DEVILS2Hell will hold no surprises

Your correspondent had the pleasure of talking with legendary British director Ken Russell in 2006, shortly before his director’s cut of The Devils (1971) was finally given its first public screening at the Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film (BIFFF) (it had been shown by the National Film Theatre in 2004, but only to a restricted audience of critics in the presence of the director). You can read my interview here, and it only seems fair to finally provide my thoughts on the film itself, which I recently acquired in the fullest version available at present on DVD, namely the original ‘X’ cut, as was finally passed for release by the BBFC all those years ago, but which is still not the complete version as was screened at BIFFF. But more of that later.

SPOILERS AHEAD: Adapted from Aldous Huxley’s 1952 account The Devils of Loudun and John Whiting’s 1960 play The Devils by Russell himself, with astonishing cinematography from David Watkin and amazing sets designed by Derek Jarman, The Devils is, quite simply, one of the most controversial, nasty, horrifying, zesty and fun mainstream films you are ever likely to see. It is a dramatised historical account of the true story of the rise and fall of Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), a 17th-century Roman Catholic priest who was burnt at the stake for witchcraft following the alleged possessions in Loudun, France, of in-fact sexually hysterical nuns, led by Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), who is sexually obsessed by the charismatic, worldy priest. She finds her accusations being ruthlessly exploited by the evil Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue), who knows that Loudun is of immense strategic importance, and is attempting to influence King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) in an attempt to gain further power. He convinces Louis that the fortifications of cities throughout France should be demolished to prevent Protestants from uprising and the king agrees, but forbids Richelieu from carrying out demolitions in the town of Loudun, having made a promise to its governor not to damage the town.

Grandier, who is a proud, womanising but popular and honest priest, now has control of Loudun, following the death of its Governor (and the king had not made any promises of protection to Grandier) – while he is having an affair with a relative of Father Canon Mignon ((Murray Melvin), he secretly marries another woman, Madeline De Brou (Gemma Jones) whom he deeply loves, and this news is relayed to Sister Jeanne, which drives her to insanity and to inform Mignon (her new confessor) of Grandier’s marriage and affairs, inadvertently accusing Grandier of witchcraft and of possessing her. Mignon relays this information to Baron de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), who is leading Richelieu’s efforts to destroy Loudun. Grandier thus stands accused of bewitching the convent and having commerce with the Devil and, with the priest away from Loudon, Laubardemont and Mignon decide to find evidence against him. Laubardemont summons the lunatic inquisitor Father Pierre Barre (Michael Lothard), a ‘professional witch-hunter’, whose interrogations are depraved mockeries of ‘exorcism’. Grandier’s days, and the days of Loudun, are numbered – as the film’s original tag line put it so well, hell will hold no surprises for them.

As you can probably tell from the above description, The Devils was never a film that was going to be readily accepted by censors, church groups, self-appointed moral guardians, and the like. And so it proved to be – it faced complete villification for many years, was banned in several countries, and eventually heavily edited for release in others. To date, the film has never received a release in its complete director’s cut, which includes the two key scenes with which the censors et al had most difficulty, namely the four-minute ‘Rape of Christ’ sequence, which involves the hysterical nuns ravishing a life-size effigy of Christ, and Sister Jeanne, now pathetically broken, masturbating with Grandier’s charred femur. Both scenes were finally included in the 2004 and 2006 screenings, but have yet to find their way into a fully restored DVD version.

There is no two ways about it – The Devils is a difficult film to stomach, containing some of the most disturbing sequences ever committed to film (such as an early scene involving the attempted ‘cure’ of the plague by two quack doctors, who feel that placing huge hornets on a victim’s breasts might be helpful), but it is a nevertheless accurate rendition of the horrors of the time, and therefore stands up very well as both an historical record and, as Russell himself put it, a purely political film, as well as an out-and-out horror show.

The performances across the board are also simply marvellous – Reed was never better than as Grandier, while Redgrave provides an interpretation that must have been nothng short of hell to convey. Jarman’s sets, while perhaps rendering proceedings overtly clinical, which forms a marked contrast with the filth at the heart of the story, are incredible, and the film as a whole is now finding its way on to most respected critics’ top ten lists. Who’d have thought it, eh?

You will never see its like again. Just make sure you see it.

117 mins (fully restored version, shown at National Film Theatre in 2004, Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film 2006), 111 mins (original ‘X’ cut), 109 mins (US cut).

Henry Kenneth Alfred ‘Ken’ Russell: 3 July 1927–27 November 2011.

Cinema Movie Review: Les Miserables (2012)

Russell_Crowe_Costume_Javert_Les_Miserables_Set_1332785871‘Shall his sins be forgiven? Shall his crimes be reprieved?’

And so, I can now die a happy man – not only was Skyfall (2012) released last year and is clearly the best Bond ever, 2013 has begun with the big-screen musical adaptation of Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil and Cameron Mackintosh‘s amazing, world-beating show Les Miserables, with The King’s Speech (2010) director Tom Hooper at the helm. And…

…I have a confession to make, first up, and that is that I simply adore musicals. I have been made aware that there is apparently a Venn diagram that exists, which, taking some of my other tastes into consideration, such as horror films and fiction, would place me in the sociopath category, and I am not gay, but I cannot help it – musicals (a little like Woody Allen) divide the world squarely into them that do and them that don’t, and I am on the side of the angels. Watch it.

Anyway, it was at a cinema in London, while I was back in Blighty on business and decided I needed a night off, that I caught up with the film I have perhaps been awaiting with even more breathless anticipation than I was for Bond – you see, since around 1995, I have been a massive fan of the show, which is a peerless adaptation of the Victor Hugo classic, and have seen it on stage (London, Edinburgh, Sheffield and elsewhere) 25 (count ’em) times. It was actually the video of the special tenth anniversary of Les Miserables (it opened in 1985 to much critical carping, but what the hell did those critics know?) featuring the ‘dream cast’ (Colm Wilkinson, Michael Ball, Philip Quast et al) that first drew me to Les Mis, before I went to see it for the first time on stage in Bristol, 1996.

Enough of my history, let’s talk about Valjean (Hugh Jackman). In 1815, convict number 24601 Jean-Valjean is released on parole by prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe). Valjean was originally sentenced to five years for stealing a loaf of bread to save his sister’s starving child but, because of his repeated escape attempts, his sentence was increased to 19 years. Forced to carry a yellow ticket of leave, which casts him as a marked man who is thus unable to find work, he is nevertheless offered food and shelter by the saintly Bishop of Digne, but he steals his silver during the night. He is caught by the authorities, but the Bishop confirms Valjean’s story that the silver was given as a gift (‘You forgot I gave these also, would you leave the best behind?’), which ensures Valjean’s release. Horrified by what he has been reduced to, and awe-struck by the Bishop’s kindness, Valjean breaks his parole and vows to begin an honest life under a new identity. Javert swears he will bring the escaped convict to justice.

Of course, there is so much more to the story than the above, and Valjean’s road to redemption is long, tortuous and ever-winding. For those unfortunate souls out there who have not seen the stage show (around 80 million people worldwide have), now you have absolutely no excuse to miss out on an experience of a lifetime – when I heard that Hooper had decided not to post-synchronize the recorded vocals to lip movements, I was very much afraid that a total hash would be made of the job, as occured with Peter Bogdanovich’s disastrous musical At Long Last Love (1975), which also did not use post-synchronization.

I need not have worried – the beautifully powerful, haunting lyrics translate marvellously to the screen, sung direct to camera as they are, and the approach gives the film as a whole the immediacy and excitement of watching the show live. Very little more to be said, really, except that if Anne Hathaway does not get the 2013 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as the tragic Fantine, whose child Cosette Valjean vows he will raise as a father, there is absolutely no justice. Forget ‘SuBo’ – I Dreamed A Dream, as sung by Hathaway, is the best version of the song that I have ever heard. Alright then, one more prediction to finish – I believe that Hooper’s incredible Les Miserables (2012) will be the first musical to lift the Best Picture gong since Chicago (2002). Definitely worth a flutter, but whatever you do, don’t miss out on seeing this, I implore you.

157 mins.

DVD Movie Review: Taking Sides (2001)

Questionable conduct?

It’s a question that will probably haunt the German people forever – who knew? How much did they know? And how many of them turned a blind eye to the horrors of the Holocaust? These are the questions at the heart of ‘based on a true story’ Taking Sides (2001) by István Szabó (Sunshine (1999), Mephisto (1981)), and the man in the dock is acclaimed and controversial conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Dr. Wilhelm Furtwängler (Stellan Skarsgård), who chose to remain in Nazi Germany during World War II and, furthermore, had alleged ‘associations’ with Nazi high command. Well, the war is over, and the Americans are very keen to bring justice to bear on the Nazi party, and Furtwängler’s is just the calibre of scalp that they are after. The hard-nosed Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel) is given permission to move without let or hindrance in his efforts to prosecute the beleaguered conductor, who has not been able to work while the investigation is proceeding. The former members of Furtwängler’s orchestra are at pains to vouch for his morality and the fact that he even assisted Jews during the war, but is this the whole story?

Clearly not, as Ronald Harwood’s adaptation of his own play delineates with more than a little flair and passion. The clash at the heart of the story is provided by Arnold’s young assistants Emmi Straube (Birgit Minichmayr) and Lt. David Wills (Moritz Bleibtreu), both of whom at first provide dilligent support to Arnold in his quest for the truth, but by slow degrees find their sympathies moving towards Furtwängler. Straube’s own father is revered as a national hero, as he was one of the conspirators who attempted to assassinate Hitler near the war’s end but, as she herself says: ‘He only took part because he knew we couldn’t win the war.’ So, was Furtwängler wrong to stay? Did he play for Hitler’s birthday? And why was he honoured by Goebels?

Keitel is very well cast as Arnold, while Skarsgård brings a rare sensitivity to his portrayal – the simplistic, but entirely justified, notions of right and wrong at the story’s core are well developed by the narrative and performances, but I must admit to having a problem with Keitel’s character ultimately emerging as being the closest of the pair to a Nazi-esque interrogator, so driven is he by his horror for what the Nazis perpetrated (as is demonstrated, perhaps too frequently, by shocking footage from the death camps).

Ultimately, the question posed by the film is whether any good can be achieved by attempting to work within a system, no matter how abhorrent, rather than leaving it to its own devices. It is this that Furtwängler claims he did, working to preserve something honourable in German culture through his work. A question for each of us, and one that the film manages to evince in a mostly honourable fashion.

108 mins.

Classic Movie Review: La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful) (1997)

Love and laughter in hell

A heart-rending tale from the Italian comedian, actor and director Roberto Benigni, the story follows a father and son torn from their wife and mother and incarcerated at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The main protagonist, Guido (Benigni) soon turns the camp experience into an elaborate game so that the horrors are shielded from his son. Full of slapstick humour in the first hour as Guido pursues his future wife, and the darkness sets in when the realities of the war become difficult to bear.

Benigni portrays a very vibrant Italy that soon changes as the axis agreement begins to marginalize the Jewish population, to which Guido and his family belong. The character of Guido is one of an extremely high level of imagination that appears to light up the lives of all he meets, even a German doctor whom he meets again in Bergen-Belsen, only this time the camaraderie of times past are long gone. Life is Beautiful tries to side-step the politics of the era and inject some human ingenuity and survival instincts, to some measured success. A difficult combination to achieve, but Benigni succeeds.

As one watches the film, it is hard not to sympathize with Guido as he tries his best to keep up the pretence of his elaborate game to enthuse his son. The hardest part being that he wants to see his mother, and there’s nothing Guido can do but carry on the pretence. Much of the film draws upon Benigni’s own family’s experience in the war, and his father, who survived three years at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

The final moments of this film bring about a rush of emotions, happiness, sadness and a feeling of relief. No spoilers here, just watch and enjoy it.

116 mins.In Italian, German and English.

DVD Movie Review: Garpastum (2005)

Another country

Truly, a film in which not much happens, but a great deal occurs – the director of Posledniy poezd (The Last Train) (2003), Aleksei German Jr takes us into the heart of rural life in 1914 St. Petersburg, where teen brothers Andrey (Yevgeny Pronin) and Nikolai (Danila Kozlovsky) love football. Garpatsum is its Latin name, and they play on the streets, normally, but then the boys hit on an original plan to build a proper stadium. They start playing with anyone they can rope into a game for money, but then the horrors of World War I and the October Revolution overtake them…

In the beautiful bichrome opening scenes, the murder of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo (which triggered the war) is referred to by manual labourers in the harbour, before an almost unnoticeable transition to muted colour photography and the world of Nikolai and Andrey, who live with their aunt and uncle in St Petersburg.

German Jr (son of the Russian director of the same name) worked on the screenplay with Alexander Vaynshteyn and Oleg Antonov, and together they have created a world that is intimately connected to late 19th century and early 20th century literature, especially German examples such as Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund).

As in those novels, Garpastum’s real purpose is not to tell a story or even portray a character, but to paint a vivid picture of young men’s relation to themselves and each other. What happens in the world beyond these bonds is only interpreted through their relationships, and as such Garpastum is not so much a historical epic as an intimate study of two brothers set in a beautiful and not-often depicted time and place: St Petersburg during and after World War I.

118 mins. In Russian, English and Serbo-Croatian.

Jean de Florette (1986) & Manon Des Sources (1986)

Hope springs eternal?

Ah! I watched Jean de Florette (1986) by Claude Berri a couple of weeks ago, and it reaffirmed my love of French cinema, with its beautiful cinematography, wonderful and realistic acting as well as its unforgiving depiction of the harsh realities of life in rural France. I tried reading the book by Marcel Pagnol at my mother’s behest, but just could not get into it – however, the film actually does do the story some justice, according to most critics.

I’d like to, but I really cannot find fault with this film; again, Gérard Depardieu brings some heavyweight acting along with the formidable Yves Montand and Daniel Auteuil in the first installment of the story, which is Jean de Florette The premise concerns a former city man, the hunchback Jean Cadoret (Depardieu), who sets about making his new life with his wife and daughter, Manon, after inheriting a farm in Provence from his father. Finding water on the farm proves difficult, while the neighbouring farmer Papet (Montand) keeps his spring a secret from Jean (de Florette) .

The challenge proves overwhelming and tragedy ensues. Enter Manon Des Sources, also by Berri. (1986). The grown-up Manon, beautifully played by the stunning Emmanuelle Béart, daughter of Florette, is living off what was her father’s farm. There’s a tantalizing scene of Manon dancing naked near a tree – oooh la la! Stop it John, such perversion! Papet and his nephew Ugolin have bought Florette’s farm cheaply and their flower business begins to make them rich. Manon knows that their secret and this film is all about revenge and new beginnings, while the popularity of the older and less desired begins to fade.

The trials of the two farming families continue, and their deep hatred is mutual, until a truly heart-rending realisation arrives at Papet’s door – a letter that was never received until it was too late, much too late. One of the few films that has made me cry like a little baby, I am usually made of sterner stuff, but ladies beware there is a shock in store and even the most discerning scrutiny wil not prepare you for the film’s conclusion.

For those who like great scenery, great characters and a truly smashing storyline, get yourself down the DVD store and buy these films – you won’t regret it.

Jean de Florette: 120 mins. In French.
Manon Des Sources: 113 mins. In French.

Danton (1983)

Riveting Revolution

And another new recruit arrives at Picturenose Towers – young John Tennant of Brussels opens his innings with a look at one of the great accounts of the French Revolution, Danton (1983).

A few years ago, I was a little frustrated at the lack of decent films concerning the French Revolution, being a bit of a Revolution buff myself – sad. isn’t it? However, as some of those at Picturenose know only too well, my love of a certain TV soap makes me perhaps even sadder!

One of the better attempts to depict the Revolution was the Franco-British La révolution française (1989), directed by Robert Enrico and Richard T. Heffron with a brilliant musical score by Georges Delerue, but even this film annoys me a little with its lack of depth.

However, Danton is a tour-de force depicting the realities of the French Revolution whilst the Terror is in full swing, with a haunting climax. It is an adaptation of the Polish play The Danton Case by Stanislawa Przybyszewska, with Wojciech Pszoniak’s Robespierre very compelling alongside Gérard Depardieu’s popular, larger than life, Danton. This is a Polish-French production with a mixed cast from the respective countries and despite some obvious dubbing with certain characters, the film really portrays the political difficulties between the Comité de Salut Public and the rising dissatisfaction with the Terror among Danton and his followers. An excellent and in-depth depiction of the two titans of the Revolution, Robespierre and Danton, culminates in a scene where they meet for dinner, which brings home the huge distinction between the two men – Robespierre is calm and collected, as opposed to the brash and heavy-drinking Danton.

Spoilers ahead – the eerie musical score, as well as the excellent cinematography really brings you into the film, getting a feel for the uncertainty of life in Paris 1794. Quite how this film was released as a B movie is beyond me – Pszoniak is truly believable as Robespierre, his powerful presence is reminiscent of many documents that note Robespierre’s demeanor, as well as his controlling manner. Depardieu is equally strong in his role, one of his earliest, and manages to just miss out on stealing the show. To me Pszoniak is too good to be beaten in this film and he deserves some series credit for his supporting role. Beware the final moments as Danton is condemned to a very graphic exit from this mortal coil, as Robespierre begins to see that he has destroyed the very ideals he believed in.

The film attempts to draw some parallels between the Terror and the Polish Solidarity movement, with director Andrzej Wajda clearly making a political statement with this masterpiece. For French Revolution fans, this is a must-see – it’s certainly one of the best films about the Revolution in existence.

Judge for yourself here.

136 mins. In French.

Albert Nobbs (2011)

The man in the woman

Glenn Close plays the title role in Rodrigo Garcia’s Albert Nobbs (2011) – a story about an Irish woman living the life of a man, to work and survive in 19th-century Dublin. Albert (whose real female name we never get to know), started dressing as a man since the group rape she experienced in her teens. She got her first job as a waiter and soon made a career out of it, visiting various cities and serving in many hotels. Settling finally in Dublin, she gathers every penny she earns in order to fulfill her dream of buying a tobacco shop. One element is missing in her perfect picture of a happy tobacconist’s future – a wife. Yes, Albert, a woman, wants to get married and he/she chooses young maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska) to be his/her future happy bride.

His attempts to attract Helen, are of course, hopeless. Aside from the fact that Helen has no idea about Albert’s gender, the waiter is deeply eccentric, highly introvert, even disturbed. Not too surprising, considering she has been living a lie for many years, but to anyone not familiar with Albert’s business, she simply comes across as a weirdo.

There is, however, one person who knows Albert’s secret – it so happens that the hotel handyman turns out to be a woman passing as a man as well; what are the odds?! ‘Mr Page’ is the one planting the idea of marriage in Albert’s head and, as it turns out, wrongly…

The story has been staged for the past 30 years, and it shows – it resembles a TV drama more than a movie but this does give it a nice intimate touch. Glenn Close is clearly the star, and uses all her skills to create a character so intense that it’s almost painful to watch her suffer in the cage of her lies, living a dream that can never come true.

I attached a bit of a sentimental note to this film, because it reminds me of Gosford Park (2011). However, it is a weird film – the story is touching but also disturbing, as is Albert him/herself. The hopelessness of his actions is tragic, and then there is the unrealistic element – the fact that two women passing as man met in 19th century Ireland. It’s highly unlikely but, then again, litentia poetica

113 mins.

A Dangerous Method (2011)

Sex and sensibility

A Dangerous Method (2011) is a film about temptation and seduction, the breaking of professional etiquette, the falling out between two aging academics and the use of a ‘Talking Cure’ for people suffering from mental problems. Another poignant insight into the life of the soul from director David Cronenberg, who is no stranger to controversy and not afraid of exploring the perverse side of human nature. Abnormal animalistic behaviour, tormented psyches and sadomasochistic tendencies are all treated with his usual flair, tact, style and sympathy.

The film has a dark, obscure side and is unsettling, but definitely not dirty or tacky – it has found a form of sensuality all of its own. Keira Knightley takes a huge risk by taking on the tricky role of Sabina Spielrein, a disturbed young Russian.

She has matured into nothing short of a screen goddess, that merits at the very least an Oscar nomination. Her spirited, harrowing depiction of an insane, frustrated nymphomaniac and her road to recovery shows her depth, diversity and allure, and I was almost expecting a football-style shirt-removing celebration after her verbal victory, but our English rose had already done a topeless scene, God bless you maam, and perhaps not appropriately, given the austere Austrian setting. Yes, I think a Damehood is order here, in addition to the Oscar.

Psychoanalysis is Austria’s biggest export after the apple strudel. But was it ‘the method’ that cured our gorgeous Sabina, or just a decent shag? Is there a place for pyschoanalysis? Absolutely, but let’s not get carried away believing it to be a science. The correct place for this sort of thing is, of course, the pub, where spurious ideas about sex can be discussed endlessly over copious amounts of beer, as is the English tradition.

Played by the studious and sanguine Michael Fassbender, Jung puts his career and reputation on the line by failing to control his own libido as he slips into a torrid affair with his irresistible patient. Viggo Mortenson plays the serious historical figure of Freud with well-calibrated austerity and authority. His friendship with Jung hangs by a thread, as the young disciple becomes frustrated with his master’s inflexibility.

The use of the word ‘method’ reminded me of one of the greatest movie scenes of all time between Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now (1979), which goes along the lines of ‘Do you think my methods are unsound? I see no method here sir.’

OK, this may be stretching my point a bit, but you catch my drift. As Mike Dundee pointed out in Crocodile Dundee (1986): ‘What’s the use of an analyst if you’ve got mates?’

Isn’t ‘talking’ what we’ve been doing since we invented language? Is there more to psychoanalysis than dream interpretation and word games? Not according to this film. For a deeper and a more interesting view on the subconscious or unconscious and a telling counter-point to the psychoanalysis phenomena, I recommend The Fantasia of the Unconscious (1921) by D. H. Lawrence.

Philosophy was a much broader subject at the start of 20th century than at the end. Psychology grew into a science and psychoanalysis, well, is still practised by gypsy fortune tellers and those annoying websites that claim to be able to tell you whether or not your ex-partner is still in love with you. Jung’s weapon, the method of his master, lacks punch – it’s lucky he had a backup plan and belt for the problematic Sabina.

The pace of the film is steady and its communication of ideas and material just about right, giving touching observations and thought-provoking dialogue that is not at all dull or overly complicated. As the story unfolds, the line between hunter and prey becomes blurred, similar to the relationship between Paul and Jeanne in Last Tango in Paris (1972).

Who is seducing who? Who has the upper hand? Who is manipulating who? Who is using and who is abusing? Dr. Jung becomes the victim in the end and the connection between sexuality and emotional disorder becomes hazy. With interest in their subject drying up, the two academics run out of steam and start to bicker – left with a withering vision, dead wisdom and a too-hot-to-handle patient.

Like in Bend it like Beckham (2002), the wily Miss Knightley steals the show and beats both Jung and Freud at their own game. Sex is sacrifice, she argues. Losing your ID, or ego, is part of the course – the sexual act obliges a nullification of the self…for spiritual enlightenment I would put my faith in 1980s pop singer Stacey Q of Two of Hearts fame above Jung or Freud.

I was sceptical of the importance of Jung and Freud concerning their contributions to the understanding of the human condition and subconsciousness before I saw the film, and am even more so now. But this aside, the film tackles an interesting topic and it succeeds because of great directing and superb acting.

It’s encouraging that mainstream film-making has evolved to an extent where ideas about existence, sex and emotional stability can be dealt with in such an intelligent and thorough manner, but it leaves me with just one question – when is someone going to make a film about the life of D. H. Lawrence, the true architect of the modern human mindscape?

99 mins. In English and German.

Jûsan-nin no shikaku (13 Assassins) (2010)

Pale riders

The latest addition to samurai lore, 13 Assassins is likely to be judged a modern classic – there’s no doubt that director Takashi Miike (who gave the world the simply marvellous Audition (1999)) delivers a beautiful work with this, which is a new version of the 1963 film of the same name by Eiichi Kudo, and is obviously clearly influenced by Akira Kurosawa‘s seminal Seven Samurai (1954).

Interestingly, 13 Assassins is in fact not a remake in the strictest sense, but does draw heavily from the original, in which young and aged samurai, from different backgrounds, come together to fight the oppression and injustice of an evil lord and undertake one last great battle.

While Miike’s skill as a director is clearly impressive, streets ahead of many of his Japanese contemporaries, his characterizations remain somewhat lacking – unlike, say, in Seven Samurai, the ‘soldiers’ themselves seem almost robotic in their dedication to their cause – apart from a vagabond, a non-samurai, a youngster and a leader, the others seem to be overly similar, bland even, so that the viewer’s attention is not as focused on them as it should be.

Miike is a great director, both in the number of films to his credit and their variety and culture – 13 Assassins emerges a welcome addition to his impressive body of work and, despite a few dry patches, which as indicated are not particularly enlivened by the viewer’s interest in any given characterization, the film nevertheless should be rightly considered as a little gem, the epic final scenes of which will endure long in cinema history.

141 mins. In Japanese.

The King’s Speech (2010)

Tough talking

The King’s Speech (2011) by Tom Hooper (The Damned United (2009) has been in cinemas around the world since late November and, in the US, its excutive producer Harvey Weinstein has had his eyes set on this year’s Oscars for quite some time. With the winners of the biggest film awards in world, not withstanding Bollywood ceromonies, to be announced later this month, it now seems that his renowned impatience will be rewarded as the movie is up for 12 gongs.

For cinemagoers in Belgium and much of the rest of continental Europe, it has been a longish wait, but hopefully it will be a worthwhile one. This is a solidly well made film, with strong performances by the two main leads Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, and a supporting cast that includes Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce and Michael Gambon.

It will play well to anglophiles across Europe, as it has that measured pacing with a final emotional crescendo that closes the movie, think  The Winslow Boy (1999). We Brits can’t do much more than that in a two-hour movie… but this should not put you off if you are not normally a fan of this kind of film.

Prince George (Firth), known within the Royal family as “Bertie” is second in line to the throne, but suffers from a terrible stammer, which we witness at the start of the movie as he tries to officially open the Empire Games at Wembley in 1925. The prince’s efforts are painful for those who are watching and listening, and the episode has a devastating effect on his confidence.

For a decade, George’s appearances are kept to those of well-wishing and factory openings, with his dashing elder brother Edward very much in the limelight. However, while suave and debonair, he also has all the characteristics of a playboy and finally ends up by upsetting upper-class society’s moral sensibilities by dating and then proposing to an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson.

In the meantime Bertie’s wife Elizabeth (Bonham Carter) makes a final attempt to find a cure for his affliction, and visits eccentric Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue. Geographically and socially they are opposite ends of the world, and what ensues is a comedy of manners as they attempt to find some common ground.

What this film succeeds in doing is giving real emotional depth to an apparent bunch of ‘stiffs’. There is a delightful scene when Bertie makes up a story for his daughters Elizabeth and Margaret, and there are also several touching scenes between Firth and Bonham Carter and for cineastes a delightful moment when Bertie meets Logue’s unsuspecting wife (Jennifer Ehle) – they played opposite each other in the BBC’s 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice.

It also rounds out the relationship between Bertie and Logue with certain scenes containing language that would have been more appropriate in a public bar rather than at court, but then would do you expect from an Aussie teacher?

Following his brother’s abdication, the newly crowned George is faced again with the prospect of addressing the Empire and rallying it to do battle against Nazi Germany. Cue panic in government circles and a sense of foreboding among those close to the king. Will he succeed in giving the king’s speech that is needed? I will leave that for viewers to discover.

118 mins.