Phantom Thread

Daniel Day-Lewis has never seemed particularly enamoured with acting as a career and has certainly never shown any interest in the trappings that come with the level of success he has achieved as a performer. With three Academy Awards and a slew of other accolades across a career spanning 30+ years, Day-Lewis is indisputably one of the finest actors of his generation and if, as he has declared, Phantom Thread is his last acting role, he leaves the industry having delivered some of the most iconic characters in contemporary cinema, from real-life figures such as cerebral palsy-afflicted artist Christy Bown (My Left Foot) and falsely imprisoned IRA suspect Gerry Conlon, to characters based on historical figures such as Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting in Gangs of New York or completely fictional constructs such as Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence or Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, which was Day-Lewis’ first collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson. Day-Lewis has never shied away from playing unlikeable characters and with Phantom Thread, he teams again with Anderson to bring us Reynolds Woodcock, a fashion designer whose considerable talents are only outweighed by his arrogance and lack of consideration for others.

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Set in the couture world of 1950’s London, Woodcock is a self-absorbed, yet revered, designer and dress maker whose genius allows him to get away with being an asshole, protected from all manner of inconvenience and irritation by his sister/assistant Cyril (Lesley Manville), who panders to is petty demands and peculiarities. Unless you regard his talent as such, there are no redeeming features in Woodcock, which does make it difficult to understand why unassuming waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) finds herself unable to extract herself from his orbit when it becomes evident what a contemptible personality he possesses. Of course, initially he is all charm and charisma in his efforts to woo Alma, but it isn’t long before his narcissism and numerous neuroses take control of their relationship. As Alma begins to challenge his oppressively structured way of living, Reynolds responds by growing more controlling towards her and behaving in a manner that suggests he is ready to find a new muse, forcing Alma to take action in a bid to protect her place within his world which, quite frankly, seems the lesser of two evils if the other option is getting the hell out of the relationship altogether.

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Anderson, who also wrote the screenplay, makes no attempt to give Reynolds a redemptive narrative arc and his worst character traits are tempered only by Alma’s manipulations, rather than as a result of any conscious effort on his part to be a better human being. Day-Lewis makes easy work of his character and with Krieps more than a match for her acclaimed co-star, it surely won’t be long before Hollywood comes calling for the 34-year-old from Luxembourg. Having built a reputation as an auteur of the highest order, Anderson also served as cinematographer on Phantom Thread and drew on a variety of techniques and lens technologies to create a look for the film that better reflects the way it might look if filmed at the time in which the story is set. Anderson wanted to ‘dirty up’ the image to avoid having the finished product present as something altogether too pristine, an approach that, when combined with the period detailing and the way some scenes are shot – such as the driving sequences – makes for an aesthetically authentic experience.

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A master at exposing the hidden impulses of human behaviour, Anderson has eight feature films under his belt and is yet to make a dud and, while Phantom Thread is not his most astounding piece of work (that honour would probably go to Magnolia or maybe Boogie Nights or perhaps The Master…), it still stands tall above so much of the schlock that somehow finds its way onto cinema screens. The film explores ideas about how memory and emotion control behaviour, as well as the dynamic between artist and muse, combining elements of gothic romance with a psychological thriller whilst taking a satirical swipe at male artists and their toxic behaviour. Narratively, this is perhaps Anderson’s most straightforward film thus far, relying very much on the performances from the two leads to keep the audience engaged and, if this does ultimately prove to be Day-Lewis’ swansong, it certainly does nothing to diminish his legacy as one of the most gifted performers ever to grace a cinema screen.

 

 

 

Sweet Country

After the international acclaim that (quite rightfully) came his way upon the release of Samson and Delilah in 2009, any subsequent directorial outing for Warwick Thornton was always going to garner plenty of interest, both from those desperate to declare his debut a mere fluke and from those genuinely excited to see what he would do next. Perhaps not surprisingly, with Sweet Country Thornton again explores the Aboriginal experience, although this time he tackles the issue from a historical perspective. Set in the Northern Territory in the 1920’s where Aboriginal people are subjected to overt racism and mistreatment – including cruelty and acts of violence – at the hands of the white farmers for whom they toil, Thornton has gathered a strong cast that includes Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Matt Day and Ewen Leslie, but it is the non-professional Hamilton Morris around whom the action revolves as Sam Kelly, an Aboriginal man who finds himself at the mercy of white justice following an incident that left another man dead.

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The first section of the film requires considerable focus from the audience as three remote cattle stations and their owners are introduced in quick succession. Fred Smith (Neill) is a devout Christian rancher who has developed a strong friendship with Kelly, who works as the head stockman on Smith’s property. On a neighbouring station, Mick Kennedy (Thomas M Wright) is more of a tyrant in his relationship with his indigenous workers, often unleashing on them for the most minor indiscretions, his violence masking the loneliness that such isolation invariably brings. As repulsive as Kennedy’s behaviour is, he is moderate in his malevolence when compared to newly arrived rancher Harry March (Leslie) who relies on alcohol to cope with the trauma of his experiences in World War 1 that continue to haunt him. With no workers of his own, March approaches Smith with a request to borrow some ‘black stock’ to help set-up his property. Kelly and his wife Lizzie are dispatched to assist, however Harry’s racist, sadistic treatment towards Kelly and other workers he has secured from Kennedy – including an act of sexual violence against Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber) – results in Sam and Lizzie returning home. When Harry tracks them down, more violence ensues and Sam now finds himself on the run from weathered Police Chief Sergeant Fletcher (Brown).

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Whilst this is just one story, it is a powerful window into the terrible cost for Aboriginal people at the hand of the Anglo-Saxon invaders. As Sam and Lizzie roam the outback, their Western dress and pidgin English makes them foreigners to the other native Australians they encounter along the way, yet they have also been rejected by the community that is taking away their land, their health and their rights. This is muscular storytelling but lacks the nuance and subtlety and, dare I say, the emotional power of Thornton’s previous film. Sure, it reminds us of what so many of the Aboriginal population had to endure through this shameful period of history, but I can’t help but feel as though Thornton is preaching to the converted.

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Thornton also served as cinematographer, as he did on Samson and Delilah and projects for other filmmakers such as Radiance (Rachel Perkins, 1988) and The Sapphires (Wayne Blair, 2012) and this is definitely where his strength lies because this looks fabulous, capturing the brutality and beauty of the Australian outback in equal measure. Written by Steven McGregor and David Tranter, Sweet Country is a simple, yet powerful story in which small traces of humanity emerge from amidst the hostility and hardship that permeates the desolate Australian outback.

I, Tonya

There are a lot of frustrations to endure in watching I, Tonya, but the hardest to bear is without doubt the fact that Australian director Craig Gillespie, in cahoots with writer Steven Rogers, has painted disgraced ice skater Tonya Harding as much a victim, if not more so, than the rival whose beating she helped orchestrate. It is a very strange move by Gillespie and it is one that builds to an almost unbearable level of disbelief as the director rams home the notion that Harding has somehow been dealt a bad hand in the wake of the events that saw Nancy Kerrigan attacked during the 1994 US Figure Skating Championships in Detroit. It is a version of events that is in complete contrast to the realities of what took place and Harding’s role in it. Make no mistake, Margot Robbie is fantastic in the lead role and Allison Janney is also terrific as Tonya’s deranged mother, but their performances alone cannot mask the lack of objectivity that flies in the face of everything we already know about what transpired.

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Gillespie weaves his fanciful fable through multiple aesthetic filters; mockumentary one moment, narrative drama the next, interwoven with historical footage that includes TV news coverage of the case and deposition testimony from some of those involved. Whereas the mockumentary style can be brilliantly effective in telling a story that, whilst drawing influences from real life characters and events (such as This is Spinal Tap), is a completely fictional construct, it is simply not as convincing in this instance, largely because it is an examination of real events about people with whom we are already quite familiar. Perhaps the intention was that the disjointed manner in which the film is put together would serve as a metaphor for Harding’s tumultuous, chaotic life that came within a whisker of running off the rails on several occasions before the fateful day that put her in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

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Yes, Harding endured a miserable childhood at the hand of her abusive mother LaVona and subsequently entered into a marriage with the unstable Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) that was mired in domestic violence and emotional upheavals that did make her significant achievements – the first American woman to successfully execute a Triple Axel and one of only nine women in history to complete the jump in competition – all the more meritorious. However, to suggest, as Gillespie does incessantly, that her upbringing and the hardships she endured somehow mitigate her culpability, is ridiculous. The film wants us to believe that Harding is merely a victim of the stupidity of others, namely Gillooly and his delusional, dim-witted friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), rather than an active participant in any scheme to knobble Kerrigan. Given that she had done nothing wrong other than being adjudged a better skater than Harding, the way Kerrigan is portrayed in I, Tonya is mean–spirited, ill-conceived and all in the name of trying to convince us that Harding is the real victim, which, of course, is nonsense.

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Through it all, Robbie delivers a show-stopping performance that has justifiably seen her feature prominently in awards speculations. Janney, likewise, is every bit as good as we come to expect from her, making LaVona utterly repulsive, yet you can’t wait to see what she is going to do or say next; her incredulousness at the suggestion that she wasn’t a good mother is deeply delusional yet darkly comic. In fact, the one trait that Tonya has seemingly inherited from her mother is the inability to take responsibility for one’s actions. Another Australian actress in Bojana Novakovic (who was so good in 2011’s Burning Man and has been seen most recently on television in Shameless and Instinct) also features as one of Harding’s coaches, while Bobby Cannavale is lumped with a character whose presence is pointless and brings nothing interesting or insightful to the table.  The other real star is film editor Tatiana Riegel whose rapid-fire cutting brings a sense of urgency to proceedings. Having worked with Gillespie before on the far superior Lars and the Real Girl, Riegel rises to the challenge of bringing a multitude of stylistic and aesthetic elements together and makes watching I, Tonya more tolerable than it might otherwise be. Despite the heroics of Robbie, Janney and Riegel, Gillespie has failed to deliver a film that presents as anything more than a tribute to Tonya Harding that is as bewildering as it is blatant. Who knows, maybe Gillespie’s next trick will be to try and sell us on the idea that OJ Simpson is a really good bloke who also deserves our sincerest sympathy.