Film reviews: Deepwater Horizon | Free State of Jones | Urban Hymn | Swiss Army Man | Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Dylan O'Brien and Mark Wahlberg in Deepwater Horizon
Dylan O'Brien and Mark Wahlberg in Deepwater Horizon
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Deepwater Horizon is a heart-stopping disaster movie which exposes the culture of corporate dollar-grabbing that caused the 2010 oil rig explosion while also respecting its victims

Deepwater Horizon (12A) ****

Free State of Jones (15) ***

Urban Hymn (15) ***

Swiss Army Man (15) *

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (12A) ***

Restaging a real-life disaster for the purposes of entertainment is a tricky thing to pull off. For every intelligently handled, serious minded effort like United 93, there’s an ill-judged mess like tsunami disaster movie The Impossible or last year’s Everest – films that exploit relatively recent history for blockbuster spectacle but offer only an inch-deep understanding of inherent tragedy. Based on the worst oil catastrophe in American corporate history, Deepwater Horizon could easily have ended up in the latter category, particularly after original director JC Chandor – who made the financial disaster movie Margin Call – dropped out and was replaced by action specialist Peter Berg. Berg’s CV will forever be tarnished by his sub-Michael Bay board-game adaptation Battleship, yet it’s useful to remember that the actor-turned-director is a prodigy of Michael Mann and was responsible for directing not just the film version of Friday Night Lights but the nerve-shredding boots-on-the-ground war drama Lone Survivor. His take on the Deepwater story certainly has the visceral punch of that last movie (as well as a star in Mark Wahlberg). Yet it also mercifully dials down that film’s jingoism, zeroing in instead on the conflict between the riggers who knew their jobs backwards and the BP executives whose negligent pursuit of a dollar over safety concerns caused the disaster. Whether you remember the finer details of the disaster or not (11 people lost their lives and it caused untold environmental damage in the Gulf of Mexico), the film does a good job of setting up the story about why a rig designed to withstand blowouts failed in such a tragic way. Berg introduces key characters swiftly and effectively and buries exposition in inventive dialogue exchanges that also help ramp-up the sense of authenticity, particularly as Wahlberg (playing chief electronic engineer Mike Williams) and Kurt Russell (as safety-obsessed crew captain Jimmy “Mr Jimmy” Harrell) deliver reams of tech talk. But it’s when everything starts going wrong that Berg really comes into his own, tightening the screws just as the bolts start popping out of bits of machinery on screen. Mimicking the literal pressure build-up in the film, he ratchets up the tension in the cinema to almost unbearable levels. The result is entertaining as hell without diminishing the real people involved in the disaster. Brilliant stuff.

Based on a true story about an American Civil War medic (Matthew McConaughey) who led a multiracial revolt against the Confederate army, Free State of Jones sounds like the worst kind of awards bait: earnest, full of speechifying and focused on another white saviour. Though this last fact seems particularly backwards-looking following the Oscar-winning success of 12 Years a Slave and the justified furore over the lack of racial diversity in leading roles, writer/director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, the first Hunger Games movie) is enough of a craftsman to ensure the film it’s dramatically compelling and sensitive to the racial complications of the era. It’s also a surprisingly meaty action movie, riffing on the western to show how Newton Knight (McConaughey) – who is radicalised by his first-hand experience of the brutality of war and the racial and economic injustice behind it – ends up leading a band of escaped slaves and poor white farmers against a system rigged to keep them down. The film covers a lot of historical ground and a framing story set in the 1940s proves a little jarring (if thematically relevant). Nevertheless, McConaughey downplays his character’s heroism and there’s good work too from Belle star Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the domestic slave with whom he forms an equal and loving partnership.

Urban Hymn also sounds hackneyed on paper but isn’t on film. Marking Rob Roy director Michael Caton-Jones’s return to movies after a decade away, it’s a musical of sorts, set against the backdrop of the 2011 London riots, and starring Shirley Henderson as an out-of-her-comfort-zone social worker who connects with a troubled black teenager (Letitia Wright) via a shared love of singing. Caton-Jones and his cast add nuance and depth lacking in the film’s schematic script, ensuring its emotional punch is well earned.

Proving that originality can sometimes be overrated, the Sundance-hyped Swiss Army Man is like set of non-existent clothes draped over a big name actor determined to show there’s more to him than the franchise that made him a star. The actor in question is Daniel Radcliffe, whose endearing enthusiasm for his profession is hard to resist, even if the same can’t be said for some of his post-Harry Potter choices. That’s certainly the case here. Cast as a flatulent corpse who comes incrementally back to life to serve as a guardian angel to Paul Dano’s creepily suicidal loser, the film – the debut effort from directing team Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively known as “Daniels” – is a high concept in search of a story, a plot, or a meaningful connection of any kind.

If Radcliffe is trying to shake off Harry Potter, the rest of the world is still embracing it, including Tim Burton, whose Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is based on the 2009 Potter-riffing fantasy novel of the same name about an introverted boy (Asa Butterfield) who discovers he can jump between the real world and a series of temporal loops set up to protect oddballs like him. Burton’s macabre sensibility and a delicious performance from Eva Green as shape-shifting Miss Peregrine (a Burton heroine if ever there was one) enlivens the tortuous plotting and dreary world building. ■