JAMES Gandolfini’s fading Brooklyn gangster is a bittersweet screen farewell as Tom Hardy matches the late star for emotional depth.
The Drop (15)
Director: Michael R Roskam
Starring: Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace, Matthias Schoenaerts
Boston crime novelist Dennis Lehane is a firm favourite in Hollywood. Adaptations of his authentically gritty, tightly plotted novels regularly attract top-tier directing talent (Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Ben Affleck twice…) and he’s become a big deal on TV too, having written regularly for The Wire, serving as a consultant producer on Boardwalk Empire, and developing a forthcoming HBO show with Scorsese based on their work together on Shutter Island. It was probably inevitable, then, that the Gone, Baby, Gone and Mystic River author would want to branch out into scripting his own movies at some point. With The Drop, which also has the distinction of being James Gandolfini’s final film, he’s done just that.
Teaming up with talented Belgian director Michaël R Roskam (making his US debut after impressing internationally with Bullhead), he’s crafted a low-key, character-driven crime thriller full of the same lived-in texture and mordant humour that makes his best work spring to life on the page. Adapting his own short story Animal Rescue (which he’s subsequently expanded into a novel that shares the name of this film) he’s also left his usual South Boston milieu, transposing the action to perhaps the only area of Brooklyn left still to be gentrified.
It’s here that we find Tom Hardy and Gandolfini – the former cast as a quiet-seeming, desperately lonely bartender called Bob; the latter as Cousin Marv, a failed Tony Soprano-esque kingpin ruing his loss of status now that Chechen gangsters have taken over his Brooklyn stomping ground. Cousin Marv runs the fading tavern where Bob works, and while his name is still above the door, Marv no longer owns it – the sign having long since become a bitter reminder of his own obsolescence in a neighbourhood where, according to Marv at least, his name used to mean something.
Instead “Marv’s” has become a “drop bar”, a place where the local mob can deposit the cash from their myriad criminal enterprises on any given night. When masked gunmen subsequently rob it (albeit on a non-drop night), it therefore attracts attention – both from Marv’s and Bob’s ruthless paymasters, and from a neighbourhood cop (John Ortiz) sniffing around an old missing-person case with ties to the bar.
If this all sounds fairly generic, the film has a number of trump cards up its sleeve to offset the familiarity of its basic set-up. The most immediately significant of these is the plot-driving decision to have Bob rescue an abused pit-bull puppy from a rubbish bin in the opening scene. There’s certainly no cuter pairing to be found in a movie this year than Hardy and this scrappy pooch, which he names Rocco after the patron saint of dogs (and, in the nifty bit of foreshadowing, the wrongly accused). Watching Hardy’s character train and bond with Rocco sends his adorability quotient through the roof – no mean feat in a film that also features liberal doses of DIY torture and dismemberment.
But the pup has a fundamental story function too, awakening Bob’s dormant humanity and sparking a relationship with Nadia (Noomi Rapace), an immigrant waitress with her own dark past. It’s in a trashcan outside her house that Bob finds Rocco and her wariness of strangers is neatly sketched out as she uses her mobile to take a picture of Bob before letting him and his helpless charge anywhere near her front door. As Nadia schools the clueless Bob in the basic art of dog care, their tentative relationship really starts to blossom. The film strikes a good balance between tenderness and terror as Bob’s affection for Rocco starts to make him more vulnerable at the very moment he’s being sucked him into a world from which he’s trying to keep some distance.
Roskam gives Hardy and Rapace just enough space to let their characters’ chemistry evolve organically here (both actors are great together), but he keeps a tight grip on Lehane’s script too, the meticulously constructed machinations of which are buried beneath earthy characters grappling with weighty issues. Inevitably this can’t help but turn The Drop into a poignant tribute to Gandolfini, not because he’s doing anything radically different (unlike his other posthumous release: last year’s lovely rom-com Enough Said), but because of the casual brilliance he brings to Marv, injecting this faded big shot with real soul and embittered menace. It’s also a tribute to Gandolfini’s generosity as a character actor that his premature passing hasn’t overshadowed the finished film. The Drop, after all, really belongs to Hardy, who benefits from the movie’s unusually enlightened use of his canine co-star as a supporting character whose journey in the film parallels Bob’s desire for love and redemption. What could have been a shaggy dog story is, thanks to Lehane’s nuanced writing, anything but.
The Imitation Game (12A)
Director: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Charles Dance
Biopics can have a frustrating habit of treating the unconventional lives of their subjects in the most conventional terms imaginable. But when done well, this kind of pop culture commodification of out-of-the-box thinking can have a subversive impact too, by using the accessibility of a conventional narrative to diminish the power of outmoded ways of thinking. That’s one of the tricks The Imitation Game manages to pull off. In bringing the story of Enigma code-breaker Alan Turing to the big screen, the film uses glamorous A-list stars and breezily entertaining storytelling to expose the shameful way Turing’s incalculable contribution to both the war effort and modern computer science was tragically and shamefully superseded by his prosecution for gross indecency because he happened to be gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain. But the film behaves exactly the way one might expect an awards-courting piece of populist cinema to behave in order to sneak in a more subtle interpretation of what the story actually represents.
A large part of its success in this respect is down to Benedict Cumberbatch’s skilled performance as Turing, the Cambridge-educated maths genius recruited by a reluctant Home Office to work on cracking the Enigma code used by the Germans to encrypt wartime communications. Telling his story along three different timelines, the film uses a police investigation into Turing’s post-war life as a framing device to explore his work at Bletchley Park and, via flashbacks, his troubled school years (Alex Lawther plays him as a boy). Naturally, the bulk of the film focuses on dramatising the top-secret work he undertook for the government, particularly the way his radical ideas were frequently met with resistance (these include recruiting Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley, to work on the proto-computer he was developing to analyse the Enigma data). In doing so, Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore – adapting Andrew Hodges’ acclaimed 1992 Turing biography – use code-breaking as an obvious but effective metaphor for both the lies Turing was forced to tell and to illustrate his own on-the-spectrum failure to comprehend the nuances of “normal” human interaction. The latter has, of course, become an overused character trait in recent years, making Turing a tougher role to play than it might once have been, but Cumberbatch (no stranger to autism clichés thanks to Sherlock) burrows beneath the surface, revealing someone with machine-like logic locked in a soulful struggle against a social order that is ultimately revealed to behave in a fundamentally inhuman way.