Film reviews: Knives Out | The Nightingale | The Two Popes | Shooting the Mafia | The Biggest Little Farm

In casting Daniel Craig as a suave “gentleman detective” in Knives Out, Rian Johnson’s reboot of the country house whodunit is as inspired as it is entertaining writes Alistair Harkness

Daniel Craig stars in Knives Out

Knives Out (12A) *****

The Nightingale (18) ***

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The Two Popes (12A) ***

Aisling Franciosi and Baykali Ganambarr in The Nightingale

Shooting the Mafia (15) ***

The Biggest Little Farm (PG) **

If the title of Rian Johnson’s new film, Knives Out, seems like a sly dig at the reaction of all the Star Wars crybabies who didn’t like what he did with The Last Jedi, the movie itself is the best kind of revenge against such detractors. Putting a subtly subversive twist on old-school Agatha Christie-style whodunits, it’s as purely pleasurable as mainstream movie-making gets, starting with Johnson’s inspired casting of Daniel Craig as a super-sleuth hired to investigate the death of a wealthy crime writer. Craig certainly has a blast as the fancifully named Benoit Blanc, a kind of Southern-accented dilettante famous enough to be profiled in the New Yorker under the sobriquet “the last of the gentleman detectives.” From the moment he appears on screen – sitting quietly in the back of a room, playing a single note on a piano – you just know this is going to be fun and so it proves as he starts picking apart the various relationships within the Thrombey household, whose fortune is thrown into disarray when family patriarch, Harlan (Christopher Plummer), is discovered with his throat slit. Was it suicide? Or was it foul play on the part of one of his brood? The latter – headed up by Harlan’s daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) – are a bunch of privileged go-getters and ne’er-do-wells and, while they certainly have motives aplenty between them, judging from the number of times they refer to Harlan’s immigrant nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) as one of the family, they also like to make a show of how generous and progressive they are (it’s a running joke that none of them can seem to agree on which part of Latin America she’s actually from). Set mostly within the Thrombey’s sprawling country mansion, the setting functions like a three-dimensional Cluedo board and Johnson – whose earlier films such as Brick and Looper demonstrated a real skill for taking apart played-out genres and re-imagining them in intriguing new ways – plays around with convention in order to create a riveting mystery of his own, one that also functions as an amusing take-down of Make America Great Again-style thinking. Chris Evans, Don Johnson and Toni Colette fill out the all-star cast.

Having broken through with the grief-fuelled horror film The Babadook, Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent returns with The Nightingale, a rape-and-revenge drama set in the Tasmanian wilderness, circa 1825. It follows Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) as she pursues the English soldiers (led by Sam Claflin) who left her for dead after raping her and killing her family, scenes that Kent shoots with an unflinching horror that makes them appropriately hard to endure. In the process she brings an admirable seriousness of purpose to a dubious sub-genre largely associated with exploitation trash: as the film unfolds, it’s rigorous in it exploration of the way the brutality of colonialism is internalised and passed down every part of the command chain to create a violent reality in which women and indigenous people are systematically dehumanised and destroyed. Kent deserves credit too for not simply giving in to the pleasures of the revenge part of the equation, especially after putting her heroine and her Aboriginal guide (played Baykali Ganambarr) through the ringer. That said, as the film edges past the two-hour mark, a certain repetitiveness sets in that dulls its impact, making it a far less disciplined picture than its early parts promise.

The latest high-profile Netflix release to hit cinemas, The Two Popes features a couple of enjoyable star turns from Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins, but this new film from City of God director Fernando Meirelles also feels a little baggy and indulgent. Inspired by the true story behind the unusual transfer of power between reactionary Pope Benedict XVI (Hopkins) and his reformist successor, Cardinal Jore Mario Begoglio (Pryce), later named Pope Francis, the film is at its best when focused on the behind-the-scenes theological brouhaha the film imagines took place between these oppositional forces. Extended flashbacks to Begoglio’s youth, however, shift the balance of the film from a two-hander to the latter’s story, which feels like a mistake when you’ve got Hopkins raring to go.

A documentary portrait of veteran Sicilian photojournalist Letizia Battaglia, Shooting the Mafia reveals a woman with nerves of steel. Picking up a camera for the first time aged 40, Battaglia’s story is also a record of a woman unapologetically coming into her own after spending half her life under the control of first her father and then her husband. Unfortunately, as directed by Kim Longinotto, the film is frustratingly short on dates, context and the basic details of its subject’s life, so while the work we do get to see offers an incisive corrective to the pop-culture romanticisation of organised crime, the film doesn’t provide much sense of the part it has played in transforming attitudes in Battaglia’s home town of Palermo.

A cheerful look at the joys and hardships of old school sustainable farming, The Biggest Little Farm traces California-based wildlife cinematographer John Chester’s efforts to start an organic farm with his foodie wife Molly and their pet dog. Though it doesn’t shy away from the realities of animal husbandry (and the environmental consequences of global warming), it’s tone and style is a little treacly and manipulative.