Film critic Calum Cooper has gone south for the 63rd London Film Festival. Today he covers the beautifully heartfelt Marriage Story, the gritty Calm with Horses, the painfully personal Honey Boy, and the exciting yet safe The Aeronauts.
Marriage Story – ★★★★★
If you want to know what emotional evisceration feels like, then look no further than Netflix’s upcoming movie Marriage Story, a rich and superbly made balancing act of joy and sorrow. Noah Baumbach of Frances Ha has taken a known formula and reshaped it to avoid the usual clichés, instead focusing on the humanity in the centre of the story. By doing this he has made an immaculate film on love and hardship, but one of 2019’s finest cinematic offerings.
Cleverly, the film opens with monologues from each of our main characters, Nicole and Charlie (Scarlet Johansson and Adam Driver respectively). They are a married couple, and in their monologues they explain what it is they love about the other. Their explanations are so deep and precise, they could give Billy Crystal’s When Harry Met Sally monologue a run for its money. Yet what’s so clever is that this is something each character has written to themselves at the beginning of their divorce, as part of an exercise to make the process more amicable. Already we are hooked.
Nicole is an actor who used to live in LA, but moved to New York so Charlie could further his career as a stage director. They have a young son together, named Henry (Azhy Robertson). Their divorce has spawned from a multitude of reasons, but now that their divorce is going ahead, the real complications emerge. Nicole has moved back to L.A with Henry, while Charlie is adamant about staying in New York, forcing them to go from coast to coast trying to finalise their split. Thus, as the ex-couple disagree on what’s financially, principally, and legally right for them and their son, tensions rapidly begin to rise.
That is all I will reveal, for I think it is best going in knowing as little as possible. And besides, there isn’t much else to know about the premise. Divorce is a subject matter that has often been explored in media. But often it is susceptible to hyperbolic and theatrical treatment. The strength of character that is tested by something so strenuous is often ignored in favour of melodrama.
Baumbach does not make this same mistake. Marriage Story’s raw power comes from its treatment of its ex-couple, and its ability to capture the humanity in Nicole and Charlie. Both of them have notable flaws – pride and wrath are sins that both suffer from, with traces of lust and envy – but you nonetheless see two good people who still care about each other and their child, even if they no longer love each other. It’s not so much their personalities as it is the timing and coastal locations that intensify their proceedings. It reminds me a lot of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, which I reckon would make an interesting double feature with this film. For even though emotions are high and their thought processes differ, both Nicole and Charlie want what’s best for each other. Sadly, the hurdles of the legal world won’t always allow for this. The characters feel real, and thus so does the drama.
Marriage Story’s raw power comes from its treatment of its ex-couple, and its ability to capture the humanity in Nicole and Charlie. Both of them have notable flaws, but you nonetheless see two good people who still care about each other and their child, even if they no longer love each other.
Baumbach’s script also has an intelligently balanced tone. The film is surprisingly funny, as well as inherently sad, showing off its sharp wit through its dialogue and side characters. Laura Dern plays Nicole’s lawyer Nora, and the zingers she produces could give this script an Oscar nomination on its own – her best scene being one where she eloquently describes how mothers are held to an unfairly higher standard than fathers.
Yet the script also terrifically advances the story at a kinetic pace, in often the most subtle of ways. Legal technicalities that initially seem like nothing serve as major catalysts to the deeper, more complex emotions going on between the two. When decisions are made, we understand the context for why they were made, and when arguments occur we empathise with both sides. The film’s best scene is when Nicole and Charlie finally explode at each other, reaching a place beyond reason as they start screaming the very things they know will hurt the other most. It’s a tremendous moment of raw emotion, mesmerising acting, and note perfect writing that leaves you as exhausted as the couple in question.
The film’s presentation also adds to the film’s intoxicating qualities. The score is composed by Randy Newman, so chances are you know what kind of music you’re in for. Nevertheless, his compositions are bittersweet, a blend of a nostalgic past and an uncertain future. Meanwhile, the film’s colour palette seem slightly muted, as if glimpsing the melancholy buried underneath the narrative. Even the set design, notably the placement of doors whether open or closed, allows us to better understand the nature of the fluctuating feelings and relationships being examined.
All of which I believe reaches the core of the film, which is compassion. There’s an interesting line uttered by Charlie’s lawyer – “divorce lawyers represent good people at their worst”. It’s an amazing bit of writing that I’ve been dwelling on since I saw the film. Charlie and Nicole have compassion for each other, feelings which are bent out of shape by the circumstances around them. Baumbach certainly has compassion for them both as well. Perhaps he is suggesting that this crucial emotion goes a long way, even in the process of ending what was once love. As Charlie and Nicole figure out what is best, the film never loses its empathetic touch, which not only enriches two award-worthy performances from Driver and Johansson, but makes the final scenes and the ultimate resolution all the more bittersweet and impactful.
I predict that Marriage Story is going to be a huge awards contender and for good reason. It’s easily Baumbach’s best film, but it’s so much more as well. Emotionally electrifying, beautifully made, and brimming with immaculate kindness, I would love to see this film get the recognition it thoroughly deserves. Then again, in a world where Green Book can win Best Picture, one can never be too careful.
Calm with Horses – ★★★★☆
Nick Rowland’s adaptation of a short story by Colin Barrett is as poignant as it is resolute. Serving as his directorial debut, Calm with Horses is a film that examines the complications that makes us human and puts them to the test in sombre and gritty fashion. What could’ve been a mere case of Diet Goodfellas is instead a smart and white-knuckled movie that demonstrates the value of loyalty as well as when and where it is deserved.
Cosmo Jarvis plays Douglas Armstrong, nicknamed Arm, an Irish ex-boxer who was forced into early retirement after a horrendous accident in the ring. He provides for his ex-girlfriend Ursula (Niamh Algar) and their young autistic son Jack (Kiljan Tyr Moroney), who needs funding so he can attend a special needs school. However, Arm’s methods are shunned by them. This is because he has taken a job as an enforcer for a mobster family, the Devers, his partner being the young but unpredictable Dympna (Barry Keoghan). When Arm’s moral conscious prevents him from finishing a job, he struggles to deal with the personal consequences of this decision.
What makes Calm with Horses immediately so engaging is its fascinating protagonist in Arm. Towering and well-built, he initially strikes you as the Neanderthal who makes the ideal bodyguard in most mob films. However, the film does a great job at peeling back the layers of his persona. Arm is a surprisingly gentle figure – although not above using violence as part of his occupation. He cares deeply about Ursula and their son, even if he’s not the best at interacting or helping out. He’s not implied to be particularly smart, but his inherent goodness is both apparent and recognised by those around him. Cosmo Jarvis gives a raw and earnest portrayal as Arm, bringing the three dimensional protagonist to astonishing life.
READ MORE FROM FILMSPACE AT LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: The Lighthouse; Jojo Rabbit; Hope Gap; Wounds
Rowland, having previously filmed shorts, has confident direction when it comes to the showcasing of Arm and the world which he inhabits. Ursula tells Arm in a crucial scene that his loyalty to the Devers family is in fact servitude, and as Arm slowly comes to realise the truth in this statement, the filmmaking adjusts to fit with this revelation. As the world becomes more dangerous and more unnavigable to Arm, the cinematography blurs and speeds up, as if to mimic the unpredictable world that Arm inhabits and his inability to properly navigate it, or perhaps a sign of his lack of belonging.
The film maintains a delicate balance of humour alongside the seriousness of its material. The storyline is so harrowing and draining for both Arm and the audience, that it’s nice to have the darkness overpowered by sharp pieces of dialogue and banter, often between Arm and Ursula when they are being friendlier to each other. Light also shines through when Arm and Ursula take Jack horse riding, the activity of which the film is named after, for it is here both when Jack is at his happiest and Arm is at his gentlest, far away from the trepidation of the Devers and the baggage that they carry with them.
From the film, one can see an articulate examination on the powerful concept of loyalty, where it should lie, and how much should be given. Often we are shaped by the environment around us. Arm certainly seems to have been, while also partially being fuelled by his own regrets. This has consumed him and has forced him to take a job he doesn’t like out of feeling like he owes, causing him to neglect what is most important to him. I can’t remember who said this, but a great piece of advice is that true family doesn’t make you feel like you owe anything, something Arm has to come to terms with throughout the course of this dark and gritty but poetic tale.
Calm with Horses marks a strong debut for Nick Rowland. It’s gritty and sombre in tone, but, like its central character, has a good and gentle heart at its core. It’s sharply written, impressively filmed, and serves as a great showcase for Cosmo Jarvis’ talent. I for one am very interested to see what Rowland does next.
Honey Boy – ★★★★☆
Shia Labeouf stars and pens the script for Honey Boy, a film that’s semi-biographical on Labeouf’s childhood. Labeouf is certainly an interesting character in the filmmaking industry if past stories are anything to go by. But with Honey Boy, Labeouf, under the directorial eye of Alma Har’el, has brought to us something smart and devastating. He must’ve had to deep dig into repressed memories when crafting this story, but cinema has been enrichened by his bravery in doing this.
Based largely on his own childhood as a rising child actor – with some scenes seemingly parallel to Labeouf’s Even Stevens and Transformers days – Lucas Hedges plays Otis, a former child actor who checks into rehab. Over the course of his stay, he opens up to his supervisors and fellow residents, his actions being a consequence of lingering emotional trauma. As he begins to do so, the film showcases memories of Otis’s life, in which his child acting days were overseen by his father James, who abused his son over his insecurity over his child’s fame. In these scenes, Otis is played by the sensational Noah Jupe, and James is played by an unrecognisable Labeouf.
I empathise with the burdens of being a child actor. It’s a job that often requires the child to bare adult responsibilities and complexities far too early, not to mention the additional burdens should that child actor achieve international fame like Macaulay Culkin. It’s enough to scar anybody. And if, like Otis, your home life isn’t much better – involving subjection to physical and mental abuse – then the entire world can seem dark, claustrophobic, and impossible to navigate.
Labeouf’s script and Har’el’s direction capture this exceedingly well. There is nothing but empathy for young Otis, and even for James as well, although to a lesser extent. The personal element to the story curtsey of Labeouf universalises it for better and for worse, while Har’el’s direction holds the audience’s hand reassuringly as the film takes an even-handed approach to the material. We feel for Otis and the trauma he endures for simply having achieved a degree of fame and fortune at such a young age – an age where he can can’t really comprehend it – but we also feel twangs of sympathy for James despite the hardship he inflicts on his child. We get the feeling that deep down somewhere he cares for his child, but is far too motivated by his own envy. We are disgusted by him at times, but when the curtains open slightly, we see a much more complicated individual hiding behind the mask of brutality.
Labeouf, under the directorial eye of Alma Har’el, has brought to us something smart and devastating. He must’ve had to deep dig into repressed memories when crafting this story, but cinema has been enrichened by his bravery in doing this.
It turns what could have been a consistently bleak watch into a darkly intricate and mature one. The visual parallels between Otis’s child acting gigs and Labeouf’s real life projects, notably Even Stevens, ground the audience into a melancholic plane of reality and evoke our reactions and sympathy. Gripping us throughout the film is the power of the performers. Hedges remarkably captures the lasting pain of youth, befitting a role older than him. Meanwhile the dynamic, both platonic and antagonistic, between Jupe and Labeouf is utterly magnetic, as love and suffering clash viciously on screen whenever they exchange sharp and articulate dialogue.
The film does unfortunately suffer from meandering at times. It works best when Otis and his father share the screen, which to be fair is most of the time. However there are additional plot points thrown in, such as the relationship between Otis and a fellow resident of their small community, which are not as well developed as the central plotline. Then again, so much of the film successfully relies on the strength of Labeouf, Jupe and Hedges, that this meandering is easily forgiven in the face of such articulate, well thought out drama.
Honey Boy is a tremendously personal and sublime story that turns pain and guilt into something productive. It is poignant, darkly funny, and deeply empathetic. Interestingly enough, Labeouf has been modest about this script, almost dismissing his own talents as a writer as selfish and a fetishizing of his own pain. I don’t agree. To me, this is Labeouf’s attempt to reconcile with the past and present the woes of youthful fame in a sympathetic light, for both child and parent. And in that regard, he has created something superb.
The Aeronauts – ★★★☆☆
Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones reunite for Tom Harper’s newest film, The Aeronauts. The director of Wild Rose tells us the story of James Glaisher, an ambitious scientist from the 1800s who believed that the weather could be predicted. To put this theory to the test he decides to enlist the help of Felicity Jones’ character Amelia to fly a hot air balloon high above the clouds and take readings. The specific flight featured in the film was, at the time, the highest altitude ever achieved by human beings (approx. 36,000 feet), and the two have to endure many hardships, past and present, to navigate their flight.
If you’re looking for something entirely historically accurate here then you’d best dip your toes into another pond. Even Jones’ character is a work of fiction, despite the flight itself having happened (she is an amalgamation of Glaisher’s partner Henry Tracey Coxwell, who flew with Glaisher, with female aeronauts Sophie Blanchard and Margaret Graham). But that matters little for The Aeronauts packs plenty a thrill, albeit in a conventional manner.
For the most part, the film is visually very interesting, if somewhat self-limiting. The film spends much of its time confined to the basket of the hot air balloon and the surrounding skyline. On the one hand, this doesn’t give the cinematographer, George Steel, and director a whole lot to work with in terms of where the camera can be positioned. But on the other hand, Harper and Steel, do make the most of it. The green screen effects, although sometimes appearing quite distant, are breath-taking. You get a real sense of vertigo watching the balloon rise higher and higher – graphs occasionally remain us just how high the characters are – adding to the beauty when we can admire the visuals, and the tension when inevitable problems arise.
We’re also engaged by the extent to which we enjoy the characters. Redmayne and Jones already have natural chemistry, having previously worked together in The Theory of Everything, and they bring their characters, as well as their similarities and differences to life. You feel their sense of comradeship rise with the balloon, and the motivations/concerns the two have are both believable and identifiable, making their conversations together as fun to listen to as the surrounding visuals are to look at.
The Aeronauts proves an enjoyable, if somewhat lightweight, experience. It boasts strong performances, a gripping idea for a story, and, if all else fails, dazzling visuals to go with it.
One can glean some thematic substance in the material, such as the lengths you’ll go for science versus your own life. Science is key to the advancement of human knowledge, but the film questions at what point does it become more valuable than your own life? What power does knowledge hold when you have no one to share it with?
With that said, the film has trouble standing out among the other films I’ve seen this festival. After such a strong debut in Wild Rose, this does feel like a safe option for Harper. The film follows a very formulaic approach to its source materials, opting for numerous flashbacks to expand upon the characters, often jarringly editing them in, which at times disrupts the flow of the story. These flashbacks often feature generically antagonistic side characters and scenes on top of that. A part of me ponders how a linear version of this film would look, seeing as it’s approximately 90 minutes and the balloon journey itself was around the same length of time.
Nevertheless, The Aeronauts proves an enjoyable, if somewhat lightweight, experience. It boasts strong performances, a gripping idea for a story, and, if all else fails, dazzling visuals to go with it. Although I would advise those with a fear of heights to perhaps wait until a DVD release. Even I found myself clutching the arm of the seat a few times.