Film reviews: Birdman | The Theory of Everything

Birdman. Picture: Contributed
Birdman. Picture: Contributed
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A WITTY riff on fame, acting, art and superheroes, Birdman delights in both plot and performance

BIRDMAN (15)

Directed: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts

Star rating: *****

Bleeding for one’s art is a much-mythologised concept in movies about creativity, but it’s taken to an amusingly literal extreme in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, a frenzied and ingenious spin on the backstage drama that brilliantly taps into our pop-culture fixation with celebrities, superheroes and super-egos.

In a superlative piece of casting (one of several in the film), Michael Keaton riffs on his Batman days to play Riggan Thomson, the veteran star of a comic book movie franchise making a last-ditch bid for artistic credibility on Broadway.

Riggan’s Icarus-like career path as the star of Birdman 20 years earlier – a series of films that required him to soar through the air in a sleek, feathery costume, immolating bad guys with his telekinetic powers – has seen him reduced to a footnote in the industry at a time when Robert Downey Jr is raking in the cash and the kudos as the star of Iron Man. (There are multiple, playfully barbed references to Downey and his fellow Avengers and X-Men, not to mention one hilariously sly dig at George Clooney, whose “smug chin” was once prominently displayed beneath the Batman cowl following Keaton’s departure from the role.)

Riggan’s solution has been to write, direct and star in a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story (What We Talk About When We Talk About Love), but as first night approaches, his mind is starting to unravel and the production is literally starting to fall apart. This begins when a talentless co-star is knocked unconscious during rehearsals by a falling light – an accident Riggan believes he might have caused by summoning his Birdman powers to slyly sabotage the play before it can be revealed to the public and critics as an artistic folly.

Does he really have superpowers? Iñárritu – whose last film Buitiful featured a terminally ill man who could commune with the dead – maintains a pleasing air of ambiguity on this point, embracing the tropes of magic realism to suggest these powers may linger in Riggan now that the line between fiction and reality has become so blurred and devalued in our celebrity obsessed and superhero-saturated times. When we first see him in the film, for instance, he’s levitating in his dressing room and is frequently to be found conversing with his old superhero alter ego, whose gravelly voice reassures him that he was better than any of the current crop of franchise headlining superstars. As the play moves into previews, these flights of fancy become even more pronounced as his myriad insecurities – regarding the play, his talent, his fame, his legacy – are exposed in ever-more manic ways. He can’t outrun Birdman because it’s in him now; for better or worse it’s the only reason people in the street are likely to recognise him. Riggan has other problems too. He’s a disaster of a human being trying to make up for his failings as a father by employing his newly sober daughter (Emma Stone) as his assistant. She’s given to sitting on the edge of the theatre’s roof when things get too much for her, and much to Riggan’s displeasure, is becoming overly friendly with Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), the New York theatre superstar who agrees to join the flailing production at the eleventh hour as a favour to his actress girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts) who has been cast as the female lead. Mike’s the kind of actor who views Riggan’s comic-book-movie past as part of a “cultural genocide” Hollywood has perpetrated on true art, but it’s part of the meta joke of the film that, like Keaton, Norton has also played a superhero called Bruce – Banner this time – during his (very) brief tenure as the Incredible Hulk. Like Riggan, Shiner is awful at being a human being off-stage; he’s glib, narcissistic and sexist, and he genuinely can’t function when not essaying “truth” about life on stage. As characters they’re a combustible mix; as actors Norton and Keaton are dynamite and it’s a joy to see them deconstruct the acting process.

Iñárritu surrounds them with a supporting cast of entertaining supporting players (Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s long-suffering lawyer and producer is the stand out), but the other real star of the film is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who operates Iñárritu’s roving camera so skillfully that the entire movie appears to unfurl in a single take. It’s a technique that’s been used before (Alexandre Sukorov’s Russian Ark springs to mind), but never with such delirious energy. Drifting and winding through the narrow corridors of the theatre, onto the stage and out into the streets and the bars surrounding Time Square, the camera never stops because life never stops. Consequently, nor does the thin-skinned mania driving these people to perform ever abate – even when blood has to be spilled in the pursuit of validation.

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (15)

Directed by: James Marsh

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, David Thewlis

Star rating: **

Is Stephen Hawking the world’s most respected and famous scientist because he figured out how black holes worked, wrote A Brief History of Time and changed the way smart people think about the infinite mysteries of the universe – or is it because he married a saintly woman who bore his children while nursing him through the motor neurone disorder that imprisoned his brilliant brain in a broken body? The Theory of Everything, an insipid biopic of Hawking (Eddie Redmayne, inset) that pores over the domestic detritus of his early life with his first wife Jane, posits the latter scenario. That should perhaps come as no surprise: its primary source material, after all, is Jane Hawking’s memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen. But without wishing to discount the incredible sacrifices she clearly made while they were together, the film’s singular disinterest in finding a way to dramatise his world-changing scientific achievements effectively does a disservice to both by making his work the background noise of a fairly dull marital drama.

This is a film, after all, that reduces his intellectual breakthroughs to eureka moments rendered in laughably banal visual metaphors – milk swirls in a coffee cup, the dying embers of a coal fire – yet expends great swathes of screen time showing how difficult it was for Jane (Felicity Jones) to dress him in the mornings, feed him, and get him up the stairs to bed every night. Of course, once they’re in bed, the film, which has been directed by James Marsh, the brilliant documentarian behind Man on Wire and Project Nim, couldn’t give a monkey’s about the logistics of their physical relationship; as the film has it, their union seems to have borne three children through nothing more than the occasional passionless kiss. It’s disingenuous to say the least, and sentimental too – particularly in its attempt to equate the complexities of the universe with the complexities love: as the burden of looking after Stephen and their children becomes ever greater, Jane grows closer to a choirmaster (Charlie Cox) while Stephen starts flirting with his new nurse and subsequent wife Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake). Sadly, none of this is remotely compelling. Nor is it bolstered by the performances, which are nothing special once you remove your Awards Season beer goggles. Redmayne’s is especially irksome. In Hawking’s pre-illness state, it amounts to cavorting around Cambridge University in over-sized geek-chic glasses pretending to be delightfully arrogant to signal how smart-yet-sympathetic he is. Once the disease exerts its terrible grip, it gets even worse: Redmayne doesn’t so much disappear into the twisted form of a disease-ravaged genius as reveal the hideous sight of a good-looking young actor worshiping at the left foot of Daniel Day-Lewis.

OTHER NEW RELEASES

ENEMY (15)

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon, Isabella Rossellini

Star rating: ****

Oscar-winning French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve teamed up with Jake Gyllenhaal for last year’s fantastic serial killer thriller Prisoners, but before making it they also shot this metaphysical curio about an academic whose life begins to unfurl after discovering he has a doppelganger.

Gyllenhaal appears first as Adam Bell, a history professor given to lecturing his students on the repetitious nature of historical events. A closed-off kind of guy, he doesn’t have much of a life beyond occasional trysts with his wanting-something-more girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent). He certainly doesn’t go in for small talk with his colleagues. An awkward exchange early in the film with a fellow teacher determined to recommend a movie to him is painful to watch for how uncomfortable it makes him, although it does supply the plot kicker: Adam subsequently rents the movie in question and discovers to his initial surprise, and then utter fascination, that it features an exact double of him in a background scene. This is Anthony Clair (also Gyllenhaal), a struggling actor with whom Adam soon becomes obsessed: shadowing him around their home city of Toronto, impersonating him in his daily life, and even calling his home, where Anthony’s pregnant wife can’t differentiate between their voices. What follows becomes increasingly strange and creepy as both men’s lives become enmeshed in ever more sinister ways.

Gyllenhaal is great here at crafting two distinct and disturbing personalities who nevertheless appear to be linked on some deeper, more fundamental level. Each man is set on a self-destructive path by their need to make sense of the new realities foisted upon them by the chaotic nature of the universe. Enemy may play on a device much-loved and oft-deployed by film-makers and authors alike (the film is based on Nobel Prize-winner José Saramago’s novel The Double), but it’s a device that is always worth revisiting, especially when it’s used to generate the kind of subtle menace elicited here.

THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2: ANGEL OF DEATH (12A)

Directed by: Tom Harper

Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Helen McCrory, Pheobe Fox

Star rating: **

There wouldn’t appear to be much franchise mileage in novelist Susan Hill’s ghost story The Woman in Black if this dreary sequel to the Daniel Radcliffe-starring 2012 chiller is anything to go by. Set 40 years on from the first haunting at the remote Eel Marsh House, the new film begins with the arrival of a group of wartime evacuees and their teacher, whose collective presence awakens the eponymous and long dormant spirit.

Where the first film boasted a few scenes that were properly unnerving, the new one runs through all the same techniques of the vengeful ghost movie – long periods of quiet followed by sudden bangs; a traumatised kid with some connection to the afterlife; a parental figure with their own demons to work through – without doing anything interesting or even scary with them. It’s a shame because director Tom Harper did good work with his dark coming-of-age debut, The Scouting Book for Boys, and horror is also a good genre for showcasing talented directors in a more commercial genre. Sadly, the material Harper has to work with here doesn’t do him any favours. Like its titular spirit, this is a film that feels like it’s in limbo.