There are films which are, as the reviewer’s favorite phrase goes, style over substance and there are films where the style *is* the substance.
Stoker is an almost entirely visual film - it could quite easily have no dialogue and be not much worse for it, although when there is dialogue it mostly lyrical, witty and worth the wait. Even the score punctuates the film sparsely but effectively.
This is a film that’s all about watching.
It is dovetailed by India’s monologue about how she sees things no-one else does. It’s voyeuristic in almost every possible sense. The characters watching each other through doors, windows, stolen glances and those long, stalkerish tracking shots at the wake. In Charlie’s case even watching India through the years themselves.
The symbolism of sneaking a peak at something through locked drawers, photographs and letters is everywhere.
And of course the way the viewer’s gaze is firmly positioned as the voyeur during both erotic and violent moments, the two blurring into each other on more than one occasion.
Like a lot of my favorite books and films Stoker is pregnant with unsaid things, sexual tensions, violent secrets - the truths (if there are any) are in the gaps between what happens rather than the plot itself. Like the empty seat at the piano it could all just be a mirage, or a specter - like the vampiric connotation of the family name. Everything is submerged between a somnambulistic, dreamy funk - personified in the moments Nicole Kidman’s character half-knows what lies beneath her family, both literally and metaphorically.
I can understand why this film is dividing critics and viewers alike because it’s a strange combination of over-the-top pot boiler and microscopic emotional minutiae at the same time. The performances are all a restrained kind of camp found almost exclusively in old noir thrillers and whilst the cinematography, set and costumes are lush and seductive it’s an iron fist in a velvet glove. It has one foot in ‘pretty’, one foot in ‘difficult’ and a more than slightly dubious moral compass - It’s a lovingly filmed spider on young girl’s inner thigh. Needles to say it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m happy to say I loved it.
I had planned on writing reviews of both Black Mirror and Utopia separately but I can’t help thinking about one when I think of the other. Two British, dark, dystopian series running concurrently with surely a very similar audience.
On paper Black Mirror covers areas that appeal to me more than Utopia - pop culture, media hysteria, and in particular, Brooker’s obsession with the frisson point between technology and human emotion. Utopia on the other hand sounds at it’s base level like a classic paranoid conspiracy theory. Even the titles would have me gravitating towards Black Mirror first - suggesting it’s as much about who we *are* as who we might become.
And yet Utopia succeeded in almost every way that Black Mirror has near-consistently failed me.
I’m not sure that the issue with Black Mirror lies entirely in the writing - the thing it is sold on - as the uneven execution. The drastic difference in stylistic tempos from episode to episode (and director to director) really is it biggest weakness for me. While ‘The Entire History of You’ (the absolute standout episode of the series for me, and in fairness probably good enough to justify the rest of the episodes on it own), ‘National Anthem’ and ‘Be Right Back’ were all directed with a sure, mature hand ‘White Bear’ and ‘15 Million Merits’ were both so cheap looking and broadly directed that they felt more like slightly off cbeebies shows than anything being broadcast on late night Channel 4.
That said some of the ideas felt so slight and barely fleshed out (National Anthem surely was not much more than a good Brass Eye sketch?) that they buckled under the weight of the 45 minutes running time.
None of this would bother me if I didn’t think there was something there. Black Mirror is, or at least should be, exactly the kind of show we need to be producing more of in the UK and it’s frustrating to see it fall short of the mark.
Thankfully this frustration has been greatly salved by Utopia dropping it’s grinning yellow bag of death next to our feet.
What can I say without sounding like a fawning idiot?
Brutal, beautifully filmed and perfectly cast it’s everything I could have hoped for from it, and a little bit more. If I have any criticism it’s that I had hoped for a clean one series and out ending (it was obviously well plotted through a proper story arc so it was definitely possible) and instead it left me feeling a little cheated in the final moments. However, that’s a small price to pay for the series that preceded it.
I won’t say much more in this review because it’s exactly the kind of show that will be spoiled by knowing too much about it so I’l just round off by urging you to catch up with it on 4OD if you haven’t seen it yet.
The National Anthem - 6/10
15 Million Merits - 2/10
The Entire History of You - 10/10
Be Right Back - 5/10
White Bear - 3/10
The Waldo Moment - 4/10
Have We Met Before? Doppelgangers Caught On Camera : The Picture Show : NPR
Steve Kloves: There was this part in the script, when he was in the cupboard, I invented him a spider named Alastor, who he talked to. And he used to nick broken soldiers out of the rubbish bin, and he lined them up on the shelf. This broken army that Dudley had thrown out.
J.K. Rowling: It was such a great image, the broken army.
Kloves: And he used to talk to them, and the point was that he seemed slightly mad when I wrote the first draft. When Hagrid appeared, you thought he was out of his imagination for a minute. He had summoned this guy –
Rowling: I think that’s a fabulous point, and that speaks so perfectly to the truth to the books, because I had it suggested that to me more than once that Harry actually did go mad in the cupboard, and that everything that happened subsequently was some sort of fantasy life he developed to save himself.
Kloves: No and that’s where it came from. It came from the book. When you read the book, you make it pretty clear that he’s an abused boy.
Rowling: Totally. Of course he is.
Let’s just start off by saying that the ticket price is worth it for the three minutes that the camera is trained on Anne Hathaway’s face as she re-writes the book on how to perform I Dreamed a Dream alone. The word ‘mesmerizing’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.
That out of the way I think this stage to screen adaptation is on the whole an absolute triumph. Taking advantage of the opportunities for both large sweeping vistas and claustrophobic close-ups that the stage cannot offer Tom Hooper has directed this in a way that adds to the stage production rather than simply recreates it. It does at points creep into being a little visually overblown for my taste (Lovely Ladies being most notable) but this is offset by the fact that, being pure melodrama at heart, most of the cast spend the film makeup-less and crying!
I heard some early reports that the soundtrack sounded disappointing and / or bad and having now seen it I can understand why. Much of the score is sung / acted as oposed to belted the way you have to do in the theatre to reach the back. I’m not sure it will be a score I will want to sit and listen to much but performing it this way was so, so much more interesting to watch.
However, as you may have heard, it has to be said that Russel Crowe’s voice is frankly completely honking. It’s such a shame because I was really excited by his casting and while physically he looks the part not only is his singing not up to scratch but he also looks seriously out of his depth much of the time too. This is a *real* shame because not only does he sing two of my favorite songs in the show but , despite Hugh Jackman acting his socks off, it also impacted negatively on the central relationship between Jean Val Jean and Javert for me. (Whilst I’m being critical I also wish they had left the Thénardiers reprise in the sewers while they were looting the dead - it’s such an eerie scene in the stage show and a lovely dark mirror to the earlier number - but that’s a minor grumble.)
Thankfully there was so much else to enjoy (and it’s a credit to how good the rest of the cast were) that this didn’t in any way ruin the film for me. In the past I’ve never been that interested in either the Marius / Cossette plot or Fantine but both of these stories really flourish in the film. Amada Seyfried just gets more adorable by the day and Heart Full Of Love was particularly beautiful despite being a song I’ve never much cared for before. The surprising standout for me though was Aaron Tveit who I literally couldn’t take my eyes off and lit up the scenes centered around the revolution.
So, yes, on the whole an absolute knockout, and as a big fan of the show a huge relief. Do catch it in the cinema if you can. Take a box of tissues and a cold compress when you go though ;)