Film reviews: About Elly | Hope Springs | The Snows of Kilimanjaro | To Rome With Love

THE Academy Award that Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi deservedly picked up for A Separation this year is the likely reason this previous effort is finally arriving in British cinemas.

THE Academy Award that Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi deservedly picked up for A Separation this year is the likely reason this previous effort is finally arriving in British cinemas.

About Elly (12A)

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Directed by: Asghar Farhadi

Starring: Golshifteh Farahani, Taraneh Alidoosti, Shahab Hosseini, Ra’na Azadivar

* * * *

Made in 2009, it’s certainly a case of better late than never, not least because it’s easy to see the roots of Farhadi’s subsequent Oscar-winning success in its DNA. Intriguingly structured and brilliantly performed, it is, like A Separation, a thoroughly engrossing tale that uses the complexities and inequities of Iranian marital law to complicate the lives of a group of contemporary thirtysomething friends for whom the country’s repressive traditions are like a dangerous undertow, ready to drag them under should they stray into choppy waters.

That happens – both literally and figuratively – when the headstrong Sebideh (Golshifteh Farahani) invites her daughter’s teacher Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) to join her friends for a weekend break near the Caspian Sea. Determined to set Elly up with her friend’s recently divorced brother Ahmed (Shahab Hosseini), Sebideh’s failure to disclose certain details about Elly’s domestic situation begins to have serious consequences. Built around a beautifully handled mid-point narrative switch, the ensuing drama reconfirms Farhadi as both a master craftsman and a master storyteller.

Hope Springs (15)

Directed by: David Frankel

Starring: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell

* *

DISPLAYING a frustrating loss of nerve, Hope Springs transforms what could have been a frank and funny exploration of advanced-age sexuality into a broad and dumbed-down relationship comedy for the Saga set. Meryl Streep plays Kay, a desperate housewife who drags her reluctant husband (Tommy Lee Jones) to an intensive round of couples’ therapy in a last-ditch effort to reinvigorate her sexless marriage.

The couple subject themselves to the compassionate counsel of Dr Feld (Steve Carell), whose baby-steps suggestions for returning intimacy to their relationship gradually give way to groan-inducing gags involving fellated fruit, and one excruciating comic set-piece revolving around a spontaneous attempt to perform a lewd act in a public cinema.

If such moments sound risqué for a film about people in their sixties, it’s risqué only in a sniggering, end-of-the-pier way. Rather than trusting Streep, Jones and Carell to use their skills as actors to convey anything worthwhile about the way companionship leads to complacency, the film hammers home every point with an explain-all piece of therapy speak, an overbearing joke or a honking soundtrack cue. It’s the cinematic equivalent of talking slowly and loudly at an elderly relative just because they’re in a nursing home.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro (15)

Directed by: Robert Guédiguian

Starring: Ariane Ascaride, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Gérard Meylan

* * *

DESPITE the title, this low-key French drama is not a remake of the old Hemingway-inspired Gregory Peck clunker of the same name. Instead, such exoticism serves as an ironic counterpoint to both the low-key tale of modest people living modest lives that follows and its true inspiration: Victor Hugo’s poem How Good Are the Poor.

The unquestioning generosity that Hugo wrote about finds its expression in the film in the form of verteran union rep Michel (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), a factory worker whose recent redundancy has forced him into semi-retirement. Unhappy but philosophical about being forced out of employment after devoting decades to defending workers’ rights, his convictions are put to the test when he and his empathetic wife (Ariane Ascaride) are robbed at gunpoint by a desperate young man who targets them for their perceived good fortune. Director Robert Guédiguian uses this as the basis for a more rounded view of contemporary working-class life than one tends to find in, say, the cinema of Ken Loach. Indeed, although he’s guilty of deploying melodramatic contrivances to move the story along, the film turns out to be quite an engaging and sophisticated exploration of some of the ideological discrepancies that have sprung up between the different generations of this social group.

To Rome With Love (12A)

Directed by: Woody Allen

Starring: Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg, Roberto Benigni, Penélope Cruz

* * *

WOODY Allen’s latest sojourn to a major European city isn’t as charming or as funny as last year’s surprise box office hit Midnight in Paris, but it has interesting ideas that sustain it through some of the more overblown and cringeworthy cultural stereotyping.

Descending upon Rome, it may take the New Yorker all of 90 seconds to plonk his camera in front of the Trevi Fountain, but the association with Fellini’s La Dolce Vita that this landmark inevitably conjures up is used to sly effect to deliver an amusing meditation on the nature of fame in the birthplace of the paparazzi. That, however, is just one strand of To Rome With Love and Allen has plenty more on his mind, including his perennial interest in the intransigence of love and the lies people tell themselves in the hopes of experiencing it for real. Blending surreal flights of fancy with more grounded comic skits, it may be a little patchy (one storyline that casts Pénelopé Cruz as a prostitute is particularly irksome), but there’s plenty to appreciate too (particularly Alec Baldwin) and it’s fun to also see Allen having some fun with own cult status. “Don’t psychoanalyse me,” he says at one point. “Many have tried, all have failed.”

When the Lights Went Out (15)

Directed by: Pat Holden

Starring: Kate Ashfield, Steven Waddington, Tasha Connor, Martin Compston, Gary Lewis

*

This unintentionally hilarious Yorkshire-set chiller attempts to use the blackouts of the 1970s as a way of distinguishing it from being merely the latest in a long line of pretty woeful attempts to rip-off the major plot points from Poltergeist and The Exorcist. Unfortunately, it fails miserably on this count and, as a result, it’s probably best not to take writer/director Pat Holden’s claim that he based the story on events that happened on the council estate where he grew up too seriously either, especially when the scares are as unconvincing as the ones meted out to school girl Sally Maynard (Tasha Connor) and her parents (Kate Ashfield and Steven Waddington) after they move into their new council house.

According to this film, malevolent ghosts like nothing more than mucking around with toys (spontaneous games of Buckaroo, an Etch-a-Sketch with a mind of its own and a Slinky that throws itself down the stairs feature prominently), locking dad in the coal shed or mocking the wallpaper choices of 1970s housewives. Needless to say, scares aren’t exactly forthcoming, unless you count the frightening facial hair and wig combo Martin Compston is forced to wear to play Sally’s supposedly crush-worthy teacher, or, indeed, the bizarre Irish accent Gary Lewis’s philandering priest seems to have adopted to make him sound more authoritative as the local exorcist.