Film reviews: The Tree | One Life | Knuckle | Mr Popper's Penguins | Sarah's Key

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The Tree (12A) ** Directed by: Julie Bertuccelli Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Marton Csokas, Morgana Davies

JUST as the titular tree at the centre of this well-intentioned family drama keeps threatening to destroy a neighbouring house with overgrown roots and ever-expanding branches, so its overbearing metaphorical significance repeatedly threatens to destroy an otherwise nicely performed film. That metaphor kicks into gear early on when a beloved husband and father of four suffers a fatal heart attack and crashes into the massive tree next to which he built his family's home.

Left behind is widow Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who isn't coping very well and slips into a grief-fuelled depression, leaving her kids to pretty much fend for themselves. Though each has their own method of coping, youngest daughter Simone (Morgana Davies) proves the most unhealthy as she becomes convinced her dad has been reincarnated in arboreal form. Before long, her mum and three siblings are starting to come round to her way of thinking.

That is, until a new man (Marton Csokas) arrives on scene and starts turning Dawn's head. Here, the destructive nature of the family's inability to move on from the past starts being heavily telegraphed by characters having heart-to-hearts with the tree's branches, or those same branches invading the house in calamitous ways.

One Life (U) ***

Directed by: Michael Gunto, Martha Holmes

WITH the exception of Werner Herzog, nature documentary makers seem to be stuck in a bit of a rut at the moment: there don't seem to be many film-makers either willing or able to break free from the tried-and-tested formula that combines stunning cinematography with anthropomorphised storylines. This BBC production is no different.

Nature described by Daniel Craig is the hook designed to tempt people into cinemas and if they come, they'll be confronted with the kind of gorgeously photographed exoticism and high adventures that would make 007 proud. Thus we get magnificent shots of snow monkeys taking refuge from the cold in thermal springs, zebras protecting their young from cheetahs and komodo dragons taking on water buffalo – all of it shot with dazzling technical prowess. The problem is in the story it's trying to tell.

Instead of providing us with a tale that celebrates how magnificent what's on screen clearly is, the film seeks to reduce everything to a kind of deep-down-we're-all-the-same commonality that's as predictable as the title is generic. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" shouldn't really be a guiding creative principle at this level.

Knuckle (15) ***

Directed by: Ian Palmer

THIS documentary is a bit of an epic labour of love for director Ian Palmer: it's the result of 12 years spent following an Irish travelling family as they repeatedly sought to end a decades-long family feud with their fists via brutal bare-knuckle boxing bouts. It's a fascinating subculture, too, and one that's strangely filmic thanks to the way rival clans the Quinn McDonaghs and their cousins the Joyces fan the flames of family enmity by sending each other video tapes (and eventually DVDs) challenging each other to fights – like raw and scarily real versions of the trash-talking promos American wrestlers engage in. The fights are raw and scarily real too. Though worth big money (between 20,000 and 120,000 in some cases) and refereed by travellers from neutral families, there's no fancy footwork or skill, exactly, just the sight of two big guys squaring off against each other as they slowly set about punching their rival's face until it resembles mincemeat. As one observer notes: a good fight will last about 20 minutes and will only end when a man has been "broken". The film's aesthetic qualities could charitably be described as rough-and-ready but that only adds to the gloves-off realities of the subject.


Mr Popper's Penguins (PG) ***

Directed by: Mark Waters

Starring: Jim Carrey, Carla Gugino, Angela Lansbury

AFTER last week's perfunctory preteen multiplex product, this pleasing picture provides a lesson in how to do a kids' film without patronising them, or those paying for them to take a peek. Mark Waters, a proven master of peppy projects (Mean Girls, Freaky Friday), proposes Jim Carrey as the eponymous Popper, a divorced father-of-two on the point of procuring a partnership at his Manhattan property enterprise when he takes receipt of his late papa's nest eggs: six honking, pooping Gentoo penguins. The film is propelled by perky performers, pulling out pithy quips whenever the plot threatens to lapse into sap. It's pity these penguins should primarily be pixelated, and deployed as part of a conventional parenting paradigm. Still, PC parents should be placated by an anti-zoo agenda, and the makers p-p-p-pick up extra points for putting out something this snow-bound in August. Vanilla Ice over the closing credits? Pretty much perfect.

Sarah's Key (12A) ***

Directed by: Gilles Paquet-Brenner

Starring: Kristin Scott-Thomas, Mlusine Mayance, Niels Arestrup

THE sight and sound of Kristin Scott Thomas speaking French has become a regular summer diversion in UK cinemas: both 2008's I've Loved You So Long and – more surprisingly – last year's tough, provocative Leaving became crossover hits off the back of the actress's typically elegant and cultured presence. If she's marginally less fluent here, that's likely down to the role, that of an American journalist in latter-day Paris trying to find the words to describe one of Vichy France's darkest hours: the state-overseen round-up of 13,000 Parisian Jews in July 1942 with an eye to their future deportation to the death camps. Flashbacks to these events make a committed attempt to recreate a history that, with its death leaps and rotting corpses, isn't altogether pretty. Mitigating this, however, is the bestseller soapiness of the wraparound scenes in which Scott Thomas wrestles with her own biological clock. Paquet-Brenner's aim may have been to engage a younger generation, but Sarah's Key gets glossier and more resistible as it goes on: were it not for the subtitles, this could easily go out on ITV primetime.


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