Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Review: A Dangerous Method

It may surprise you to hear that director David Cronenberg has gone crazy. You may have assumed, judging by some of his previous work, that he was crazy already, but no; the weird sexualised monsters, the typewriters coming to life and eating each other, Jeff Goldblum turning into a fly- that was David Cronenberg's version of sane. His latest work, A Dangerous Method, is a biopic, not of any particular person, but of the birth of psychoanalysis itself. It is centred on the interactions of analysts Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley).

In a way, making a film about Jung, Freud and Spielrein was a perfectly logical choice for Cronenberg who is, if his work is anything to judge by, obsessed with sex, death and psychology in the most Freudian way imaginable. A Dangerous Method begins with Spielrein being dragged into consultation with Jung, suffering from acute hysteria (a disease affecting almost exclusively women which seems to have now died out, possibly due to the fact that female sexuality is no longer repressed). Knightley, usually a wooden and predictable actress, excels herself in these scenes, portraying Spielrein's hysteria in a way that makes her appear to be both trying to answer Jung's questions and trying not to; she thrashes around, claws at herself uncontrollably, and contorts her face until she appears to be vomiting her words.

The actors are in general very good, especially Mortensen, who is almost unrecognisable as Freud, but the quiet dullness of the film holds back their performances. You'd expect a film about sex obsessed neurotics to be far more interesting, especially in the hands of Cronenberg; making a realistic film about real people doesn't necessarily mean that you have to make it unobtrusive and lacklustre. Of course Cronenberg is allowed to explore methods of filmmaking which differ from his usual style, and one could argue that the restrained nature of the film echoes the repression and neuroses of the main characters, but A Dangerous Method leaves no lasting impression on the viewer; this certainly is not the case with most of Cronenberg's earlier work, which can sometimes have you wondering if you've stepped off the edge into the screaming void.

The film is clearly very clever (the characters natter on about complex psychological theory every chance they get). We are shown the burgeoning relationship between Freud and Jung complicated by Jung's fascination with the masochistic Spielrein, who after recovering from her hysteria eventually becomes a psychoanalyst herself. Adapted from a play by Christopher Hampton called 'The Talking Cure', perhaps it would have been better if the film had stayed as one. Imagining the subject matter of the film as a play, with three or four characters sitting about talking on a stage furnished only with a psychologist's couch, a box of Freudian cigars, and the odd whip or two, it is possible to see the potential in the film's concept. By taking the idea and putting it in a film, Cronenberg has unfortunately added nothing which could not have already been conceived on the stage.

In the hands of another director, perhaps this might not have been so (and in fact, we really would have expected far more from Cronenberg in the first place). A Dangerous Method is a relatively interesting watch, particularly if you're already familiar with both Freudian and Jungian psychological theory, but if you're expecting any sort of innovation or bold statement from this film, you won't find it. Cronenberg's version of crazy is to take an intense and deeply layered subject and to make a dull, watery film about it.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Review: The Woman in Black

As any true horror fan knows, there's nothing scarier than a dead child; except, perhaps, the dead child's vengeful mum. As Susan Hill knew when she wrote the book of The Woman in Black nearly twenty years ago, if you want to scare people out of their minds then it's certainly a good place to start. It was a refreshing experience to be sitting in a cinema and see the large blood red logo of Hammer spread itself across the screen - you might be able to find scarier and gorier films than those produced by the vintage studio, but if it's true classic retro horror cinema you're after, then Hammer is the shop for you.

In an unmistakeble echo of the opening of Dracula, at the start of The Woman in Black, young Lawyer Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe - yes, you heard me) travels to a remote English village in order to go through a life's worth of legal papers left behind in a marshland mansion. The villagers welcome him into their midst with the traditional practices of staring at him coldly from their windows, ushering their children inside when he walks by, and shoving him in the attic room of the local inn (from the windows of which three angelic young girls once jumped to their deaths). Kipps quickly discovers that all is not what it seems; in fact, the village is being terrorised by a ghostly woman in black who has a nasty habit of causing local children to kill themselves whenever she is seen by a living person.

The Woman in Black is a ripping yarn, a classic ghost story, and like all the best ghost stories, it starts with a house. This particular house is situated on an island in the middle of a marsh which is cut off from the mainland twice a day by the tide. It is the scenes of Kipps exploring the house which are undoubtedly the most frightening; shot cleverly by director James Watkins, they stretch the tension tighter than a violin string, almost making the viewer feel as if it is they, not Kipps, walking alone through the house. It has all the cliches of a haunted house; cobwebs, creepy stuffed animals, and enough ugly china dolls and warped wind-up toys to satisfy anyone, but somehow it never seems cliched. These classic props are filmed in innovative ways, reminding the viewer subconsiously of all their favourite old horror films without ever directly referencing them. The light from Kipp's candle playing across the dead glass eyes of a wind-up monkey band is, to my mind, the scariest shot of the film.

The best thing about this film is the way that the atmosphere of the haunting is created, and then the tension built slowly and deliberately within that atmosphere. In one particularly good scene, Kipps makes his way towards a loud banging sound upstairs which gets faster and faster the nearer he gets to it. When Kipps finally gets to the door of the room the sound is coming from, he can't get it open. He runs downstairs to get an axe, and runs back up only to discover that the door has opened by itself. Then, having just spent two minutes working his way along the corridor towards the closed door, he must make the same walk all over again towards the open one; by this point the viewer is practically chewing through their own fingers just for a bit of relief.

Radcliffe, although he is possibly a little young to have been cast in this role (Kipps has a four year old son and a dead wife) does an average job of it; it's Ciaran Hinds who pulls it off - he says more with one incredulous look than most actors could in a three minute soliloquy. Still, this film is far more centred on the dead than it is on the living; the actors and the story arc are put on the back burner in favour of the ghostly atmosphere and dexterous mise en scene (plus the ending, which I am informed is totally different from the book, leaves a lot to be desired). Still, if you're looking for a disturbingly tense 95 minutes, The Woman in Black will not disappoint - and you'll never be able to look at a wind-up toy in the same way again.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene (try saying that three times fast) is writer/director Sean Dirkin's first stab at a feature length film. Starring Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashley), Sarah Paulson and John Hawkes, it is the story of a young woman attempting to deal with the psychological fallout after escaping from an abusive modern day cult (echoes of the 'Family' of Charles Manson, or even the 'Branch Davidians' of David Koresh).

The film begins where most others would end; with Martha's frantic woodland dash to freedom from a dilapidated farmhouse in the Catskills, where she has been for two years. After phoning from the nearest town, she ends up at the glossy lakeside home of her sister and brother-in-law in Connecticut. The story of Martha's experiences with her 'other family' are told gradually, as if she is slowly drawing forgotten things from her subconscious. This is intercut with instances of Martha's ever more erratic behaviour following her escape; it becomes clear that she isn't just going to walk this one off.

Although set in the present, for the most part Martha feels incredibly seventies - the characters spend most of their time in floral, hippyish clothing, grubbing about in the soil and gathering around for guitar sessions in the barn. Cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) is Manson by any other name, a charismatic psychopath surrounding himself with impressionable youngsters, pretending to have some sort of spiritual agenda in order to control and take advantage of them. That's not to say that the film is derivative; although it feels familiar, perhaps it is so for a reason - the familiarity makes what Martha goes through a little too close for comfort. What the film does especially well is casually yet definitely indicate the terrible identity-erasing power of the cult; when Patrick changes Martha's name, he does it almost offhandedly; "You look like a Marcy May," he says, and that's that ('Marlene' is the name that the cult women use when they have to answer the phone).

Apart from the loss of personal identity, one of the most disturbing things about the cult is the ease with which the female members seem to accept the dominance of the men - among other things, they must wait outside subserviently while the men eat, and they must submit to Patrick's horrific 'cleansing ritual'. The only function of the male members seems to be to go out and recruit more impressionable young women on Patrick's behalf, and occasionally build a few fences (one wonders if Patrick bothers to rename the men, claiming ownership of them the way he does the women).

The structure of the film can't really be referred to as 'flashback'; the viewers are not 'flashed' back through time, rather we are witness to Martha's struggle as she remembers each piece of her past, and then fails to cope with it. In the March 2012 issue of Sight and Sound Magazine, Dirkin tells Johnathan Romney:

"I never tried to be tricky. I don't like films with flashbacks, I don't like films that play tricks. So I never thought of it like that. To me, her emotional journey is linear. I thought it was literally what she was going through emotionally, in a very straightforward way."

In other words, the concept of the film is that we are following Martha through her emotional rollercoaster in the weeks after her escape; not looking back at things that have happened, but looking at the effect they are having on her now. Martha is damaged, perhaps irreparably, by what has happened to her; she fears recapture by the cult, and probably will do so for the rest of her life. There are some clues that the cult may have followed her and know where she is, but it is unclear whether these are real, or exist solely in Martha's confused mind.

Elizabeth Olsen is a revelation as Martha, managing to capture all of her emotional stages perfectly; innocent convert, vulnerable victim, and scarily consummate disciple are all pulled off with aplomb. John Hawkes is also extremely good as the unsettling Patrick (Hawkes also drew attention recently at the 2012 Sundance festival when he played a man in an iron lung in The Surrogate). Despite the great acting, clever structure, and dangerously realistic represention of the cult, there is still a lingering feeling that something is missing from Martha - although this may be only because the ending is so abrupt, leaving many questions unanswered. When considered, the suddenness of the final cut may in fact be the scariest thing about this film (which isn't really the 'thriller' it claims to be). Dirkin's sudden cut mid-scene leaves one with the distinct impression that, although the movie might be over, it's still not over for Martha (Marcy May), and it probably never will be.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is on general release in the UK and is a KINOLENS Film of the Moment.